By Tommy Keeler Jr.
HARRISONBURG --James Madison University needed only three plays in the third quarter to pull away, and then held off a furious rally late in the game for a 38-31 Colonial Athletic Association football win over Richmond.
"It was a typical JMU-Richmond game," JMU coach Mickey Matthews said. "One group's not going to let the other team get ahead very far. This is my 15th year, 15 times I've played them -- there's been very few blowouts."
JMU led 7-6 at the half, but immediately took charge in the second half.
JMU's Dejor Simmons returned the second-half kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown to give JMU a 14-6 lead.
"It was a wall at first, but then I followed my lead blocker, and the next thing you know there was a seam so I just hit it," Simmons said of the return. "It was my first kick return for a touchdown, so you can only imagine how that feels. It was a good spark in the game."
The Spiders (2-4, 0-2 CAA) responded with a 13-play drive, but for the third time had to settle for a Brandon Jordi field goal to cut the lead to 14-9 with 9:35 left in the third quarter.
The Dukes (5-2, 2-1) needed only three plays on their next drive. JMU quarterback Michael Birdsong connected with Brandon Ravenel for 71 yards, and wide receiver Quintin Hunter then ran it in for a 9-yard touchdown on a reverse with 9:00 left in the third quarter.
"It was nice," Birdsong said of the Dukes' strong third quarter. "Execution at it's finest. It was good play calling from up top. [Offensive Coordinator Mike O'Cain] saw what we had to run and [O'Cain] ran it and we executed. That was sweet."
After an interception by JMU's Kwe'shon Williams the Dukes seemed to have put the game away with a four-play 40-yard drive. Birdsong connected with tight end Dean Cheatham for a 16-yard score with 2:34 left in the third quarter and a 28-9 lead.
Matthews said Richmond was focused on stopping the run, which opened up JMU's passing game.
"They had packed their defense in," Matthews said. "We were surprised how they were lined up. They were just hovering over us at the line of scrimmage. That's why we were throwing the ball down the field with so much success. They were lined up to stop the rush, and they did a great job of it."
A Cameron Starke 46-yard field goal, and a Birdsong touchdown pass to Daniel Brown helped give the Dukes a 38-16 lead with 11:14 left in the game.
The Spiders refused to go away. A Jacobi Green 15-yard touchdown run, and a Michael Strauss pass to Ben Edwards helped trim the lead to 38-28 with 7:22 left.
Another Jordi field goal cut the lead to 38-31 with 1:32 left in the game. JMU's Brandon Ravenel recovered the ensuing onside kick to finally out the game out of reach.
"Too many mistakes. Our penalties really cost us in the football game," Richmond coach Danny Rocco said. "We gave up too many big plays defensively for easy or quick scores. I thought the kickoff return in the second half was probably the most significant play in the game. Despite my disappointment, our guys did fight hard. They fought real hard. They fought till the end. And we almost fought our way back into the football game."
Strauss set a school record in both pass attempts and pass completions, and a career high in passing yards. He threw for 423 yards on 41 for 64 passing.
Birdsong was 16 for 23 for 262 yards. The Dukes only ran for 123 yards as a team.
The Dukes have the week off before playing at New Hampshire on Oct. 26.
Birdsong said he was very happy with how the offense performed.
"I thought we did good," Birdsong said. "We did what we were supposed to do. We could have ran the ball a little bit better. But overall we did what we wanted with the ball, I think, especially through the first three quarters."
Contact Assistant Sports Editor Tommy Keeler at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or firstname.lastname@example.org Follow on Twitter @tkeelernvd