By Tommy Keeler Jr.
HARRISONBURG --It wasn't quite the performance that James Madison wanted, but the Dukes used a flurry of scores early in the third quarter to get the ultimate goal accomplished.
JMU used a punt return and two interceptions to pull out a 38-14 non-conference football victory over Central Connecticut State on Saturday night.
The Dukes were not thrilled with how they played, and had two fumbles on the night and seven penalties.
"I was happy we won the game," JMU head coach Mickey Matthews said. "I just wanted to do more offensively than we did. I didn't want to turn the ball over. The ball was on the ground too much."
Leading 21-7 at the half, JMU's defense and special teams set the tone in the third quarter.
JMU held the Blue Devils to a three-and-out on the first series of the second half.
JMU senior Dae'Quan Scott then returned the ensuing punt 54 yards for a touchdown, the 15th in Bridgeforth Stadium history.
On the next drive, JMU junior Dean Marlowe intercepted a Clements pass and returned it 35 yards to the Central Connecticut 4.
The Blue Devils held the Dukes to an 18-yard field goal by Cameron Starke with 9:56 left in the third quarter.
On the next drive, JMU redshirt freshman Taylor Reynolds intercepted a Clements pass and returned it 51 yards for a touchdown and a 38-7 lead with 8:04 remaining in the third quarter.
"I was kind of shocked, because usually when you have interceptions in practice you hear the whistle blow and the play stops," Reynolds said. "When I caught it I was like 'oh crap.' So, I just took off and I'm thankful for my teammates for setting up some great blocks, and I just got into the end zone."
"I thought the third quarter was the deciding factor," Central Connecticut State head coach Jeff McInerney said. "The punt return and the two back-to-back interceptions just turned the game around. But I give them all the credit in the world. They're a very well-coached team. They're a very physical football team."
JMU's new uptempo offense looked sharp on its first drive. The Dukes needed only three minutes and three seconds to score their first touchdown of the game.
They went 75 yards on eight plays. JMU sophomore quarterback Michael Birdsong either ran with the ball or threw on five of the eight plays.
The key play of the drive was a 35-yard pass from Birdsong to Arlandis Harvey, which moved the ball to the Blue Devils' 5-yard line.
Birdsong ran it in from the 1 two plays later to give the Dukes a 7-0 lead with 11:50 left in the first quarter.
Birdsong finished the game 10 for 18 for 115 passing yards, and 55 yards rushing. He threw one touchdown and ran for two more.
"The good thing about Mike -- he competed really well," Matthews said. "He didn't turn the ball over. He didn't throw the ball in a crowd. He made some great throws."
JMU scored again on its third drive. The Dukes used eight plays to go 47 yards. JMU running back Jauan Latney's 14-yard run moved the ball to the Central Connecticut 8, and two plays later Birdsong ran it in from the 6 to give JMU a 13-0 lead with 43 seconds left in the first quarter.
The Blue Devils put together a solid drive late in the first half. The Blue Devils went 71 yards in 12 plays. They finished off the drive with a 14-yard pass from Andrew Clements to Denzell Jones with 3:03 left in the first half.
The Dukes responded with an eight-play 45-yard drive. DeAndre Smith's kick return gave the Dukes great field position and they took advantage. The Dukes moved the ball methodically, with the longest play of the drive coming on a 9-yard run by Dae'Quan Scott.
Birdsong capped off the drive with a 3-yard pass to tight end Deane Cheatham with 42 seconds left in the half, giving the Dukes a 21-7 lead.
Central Connecticut State added a touchdown in the fourth quarter. Central Connecticut State backup quarterback Nick SanGiacomo connected with Tyrell Holmes for a 5-yard score with 5:22 left in the game.
Warren County graduate Gage Steele was tied for the most tackles for the Dukes with 12 in his first career start at linebacker. Handley graduate and redshirt junior Jeremiah Wilson, making his first start at safety, was third on the team with eight tackles.
Scott led the Dukes with 120 yards rushing on 23 carries.
Even though they won, the Dukes said they know they will have to play a lot better next Saturday when they play at Division I-A Akron.
"We just have to come to practice on Monday and clean everything up," Scott said. "Akron, they're a good team. So, we have to get it together."
Contact Assistant Sports Editor Tommy Keeler at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or firstname.lastname@example.org Follow on Twitter @tkeelernvd