By Tommy Keeler Jr.
HARRISONBURG -- It was only fitting that it came down to the James Madison University defense.
On a day in which the Dukes' offense struggled, the defense made the plays to help JMU pull out a 24-20 non-conference football win over Saint Francis (Pa.) on Saturday at Bridgeforth Stadium.
"I thought they really played well, and I thought we really played bad," JMU coach Mickey Matthews said. "We just didn't play on offense. We just didn't play. We just couldn't throw it and catch it. [Quarterback] Michael [Birdsong] played extremely poor, the receivers played extremely poor. Everyone on offense played bad."
The Red Flash had one last chance to win the game, and they started their final possession at the JMU 36 with 1:04 left.
Two incomplete passes by Saint Francis quarterback Capri Thompson, and a sack by JMU's Jordan Stanton and Tyler Snow forced the Red Flash into a fourth-and-14 at the JMU 40.
Thompson's pass was caught by Anthony Abeid, but it was ruled out of bounds to seal the win for the Dukes.
"We played well enough to win the game there at the end of the game," Matthews said. "We made enough plays to win the game and get out of here with a win."
When the Dukes (2-1) really needed it, Dae'Quan Scott took over down the stretch.
The senior tailback ran the ball four straight times to start off the decisive offensive drive with the game tied at 17-17. JMU's Dejor Simmons then ran on three straight carris picking up 25 yards. Scott then capped off the drive with a 22-yard TD run to put the Dukes up 24-17 with 7:49 left in the game.
"That just comes with being a senior," Scott said. "If the offense wasn't clicking on all cylinders, and the passing game wasn't tonight, so I just felt like I had to put the team on my back and lead us to victory."
The Red Flash (0-2) responded with a six-play drive, which ended with a 47-yard field goal by Lance Geesey to cut the lead to 24-20 with 3:28 left in the game.
The first half was a disaster for JMU on offense. The Dukes managed only 164 yards, most of which came at the end of the half.
Birdsong was 8 for 19 for 98 yards with two interceptions in the opening half.
"We just came out here and didn't play up to our potential, at least offensively," Birdsong said. "Defense did their job -- they stepped up. Offense, we did what coach said not to do. We came out here and treated these guys light. And they punched us in the mouth as soon as we got out there."
The Red Flash took the lead on the first play from scrimmage as quarterback Max Ward threw a 72-yard touchdown pass to Terell Smith for a 7-0 lead just 15 seconds into the game.
The defenses dominated the rest of the first half.
"We got off to a great start," Saint Francis' Max Ma'afala-Maiava said. "We hit 'em and we were hitting 'em good. We kept them on their toes. We tried to make their playmakers not get any big plays."
JMU finally put together a drive late in the first half. The Dukes went 69 yards in 11 plays, but had to settle for a 21-yard field goal by Cameron Starke with 1:26 left, to cut the lead to 7-3.
Things didn't get much better for the Dukes to start the second half. After a three-and-out on offense, the Red Flash needed just three plays to go 59 yards.
Running back Kyle Harbridge ran for a 50-yard touchdown after it appeared he would be tackled on third-and-1. He bounced off a group of tacklers and cut back to the right and raced down the sideline to give Saint Francis a 14-3 lead with 12:22 left in the third quarter.
JMU finally scored a touchdown in the third quarter. The Dukes went 77 yards on eight plays. Birdsong connected with Marquis Woodyard for an 11-yard touchdown with 3:38 left in the third quarter to cut the lead to 14-10.
On the Dukes next possession, they went 56 yards in just five plays, all of which were runs. Scott capped off the drive with a 24-yard run, in which he bobbed and weaved his way past tacklers and into the end zone. The touchdown gave the Dukes their first lead of the game, 17-14 with 1:11 left in the third quarter.
"The passing game just wasn't working so we went to what JMU does -- run the ball," Birdsong said. "We went back to it. And the line got it done. They were pushing holes big enough for trucks to fit through them. So hats off to them."
The Dukes were unable to put the game away. On JMU's next possession, Birdsong threw his third interception of the day, this time to DaQuan Minter, who returned it to the JMU 33.
Three plays later the Red Flash settled for a 45-yard field goal by Geesey to tie the game at 17-17 with 9:58 left.
Scott finished with 190 yards on 32 carries. Birdsong threw for 145 yards, on only 10 for 23 passing and three interceptions with one touchdown.
Even though the Dukes didn't play well on offense, the team was upbeat about where they are as a team right now.
"We just gotta put this one past us and come out next week," Birdsong said. "We got a good team in Charlotte and we gotta look at film and what we did wrong. We gotta put this behind us, and come out here and play like we know how to play."
Contact Assistant Sports Editor Tommy Keeler at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or firstname.lastname@example.org Follow on Twitter @tkeelernvd