By Tommy Keeler Jr.
James Madison University football coach Mickey Matthews told his players last week that it was a three-game season, with three games left. He wanted his players to play with intensity and pretend it was a playoff game, and he got what he wanted.
The Dukes played their best game of the season with their 31-7 victory over Maine, and it was exactly what Matthews has been yearning for from his team all year.
"We couldn't get our guys to play with an edge. We weren't rushing the passer," Matthews said. "We played with an edge Saturday.
"We played with a lot of energy. Our kids played with a lot of excitement."
The Dukes (7-2, 5-1 CAA) will need more of that energy and excitement today when they play at Villanova at 1 p.m.
One thing JMU won't have to worry about is a quarterback controversy. In last week's win over Maine, redshirt junior Justin Thorpe replaced true freshman Michael Birdsong at quarterback, just two weeks after Birdsong had replaced Thorpe.
Thorpe went 9 for 12 for 108 yards passing, and had 111 rushing yards. He was named the CAA Offensive Player of the Week. However, Birdsong suffered an ankle injury in the final minute of the game against Maine and is expected to be out for several weeks.
Matthews said Thorpe would have been the starter either way.
"He played very good," Matthews said. "He made some great decisions Saturday."
Matthews said Thorpe had been practicing really well throughout the week last week, and so they had decided to use both quarterbacks against Maine. Redshirt freshman and Vanderbilt transfer Lafonte Thourogood will be the Dukes' backup quarterback.
Villanova (6-3, 4-2) is coming off a bye week, and has been able to rest up some players that were banged up.
One of those players is quarterback John Robertson. The redshirt freshman has thrown for 1,496 yards on 114 for 187 passing and 12 touchdowns. He also has 741 yards rushing and 10 touchdowns.
Matthews thinks Robertson is one of the best freshman in the country.
"He can make you miss," Matthews said of Robertson. "I think he's a really good player. He can run like the wind."
The Wildcats had a down year last season, finishing 2-9, just three years after winning the national title.
Villanova coach Andy Talley said he had a young team, but he was still very disappointed with how things went last season.
"There were times last year when we were not a competitive football team," Talley said. "And that's very disheartening for everybody. This year our kids have played well. We've been competitive."
Talley said having the experience of going through last year helped his team. The Wildcats still have a serious shot at making the playoffs, but Talley said they probably need to win their last two games against JMU and at Delaware to make it.
He also knows the challenges of facing the Dukes.
"Speed, speed, speed. Fast, fast, fast. That would pretty much be a summary of James Madison," Talley said. "They've always been that way and nothing has changed. On top of that, they're a very physical group. And my man Mickey [Matthews] coaches them beautifully.
"They are, I think, one of the top teams in the country."
Matthews knows the next two games are very important for the Dukes' playoff chances. He said he believes the Dukes could get in with just one more win, but nothing is guaranteed. He said the Dukes' goal is to get the automatic berth that comes with being a conference champion.
The Dukes are currently tied with New Hampshire and Old Dominion for first. However, ODU is not eligible for the conference title since they will be moving up to the FBS next year.
"Our goal is to win the conference championship," Matthews said. "We are in control of our own destiny. We don't have to ask for any help."
Contact assistant sports editor Tommy Keeler Jr. at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or firstname.lastname@example.org