By Tommy Keeler Jr.
HARRISONBURG -- Something had to give.
Villanova had the top rushing offense in the Colonial Athletic Association. James Madison University had the top-ranked rushing defense in the league as the two teams squared off Saturday at Bridgeforth Stadium.
JMU's defense dominated the match-up leading to a 31-21 CAA win.
The Dukes held Villanova quarterback John Robertson to only 44 yards on 17 carries, 88 yards below his season average per game.
"Their defense was very tenacious," Villanova coach Andy Talley said. "We did make some plays on them, but not consistent and not enough to win the game.
"Obviously JMU played a very, very good game. I think they maybe played the best they played all year."
JMU coach Mickey Matthews and the rest of the Dukes agreed with Talley. The Dukes combined a stingy defense with a productive offense.
JMU finished with 364 yards of offense.
"It was our best game of the year, obviously," Matthews said. "Because we played four quarters. I knew Villanova wasn't going to quit. We didn't turn the ball over. We didn't allow any big plays."
The Dukes (6-3, 3-2 CAA) scored first on their second possession of the game. JMU put together a 12-play, 70-yard drive, capped off by a 6-yard touchdown run by Khalid Abdullah with 8:29 left in the first quarter. The touchdown was set up by a 26-yard wide receiver pass from wide receiver Quintin Hunter to quarterback Michael Birdsong.
The Wildcats (4-5, 3-3 CAA) responded on their next drive. They needed only five plays to 48 yards to tie the game. Villanova quarterback John Robertson threw an 18-yard touchdown pass to Kevin Gulyas with 6:21 left in the opening quarter.
The Dukes came right back with another impressive short drive. JMU needed only three plays to go 75 yards. On the first play, Birdsong connected with Brandon Ravenel for a 50-yard pass. Two plays later DaeQuan Scott ran it in from 10 yards out to give MU a 14-7 lead with 5:31 left in the first half.
Scott tied the JMU career rushing touchdown record on the score, his 32nd rushing touchdown.
Both defenses stepped up after that as there were only 10 points scored the rest of the half.
The Wildcats went 90 yards on 11 plays, capped off by a touchdown pass from Gary Underwood to Gulyas on a trick play with 11:30 left in the half.
The Dukes put together a solid drive on their next possession. They used 12 plays to move to the Villanova 13, but the drive stalled and they settled for a 30-yard Cameron Starke field goal with 5:41 left in the half.
JMU started to pull away midway through the third quarter. The Dukes put together a 15-play, 90-yard drive. Birdsong connected with Daniel Brown for a 34-yard touchdown pass with 3:52 left in the third quarter on a third-and-18 play.
"That was a play we had worked on all week," Brown said. "I just saw the safety was rolled down, so I just kept it high and Mike [Birdsong] put it in right in the bread basket."
JMU cornerback DeAndre Smith put the game out of reach with an 86-yard interception return for a touchdown to give the Dukes a 31-14 lead with 5:50 left in the game. It was the first interception of Smith's career. Smith moved from wide receiver to cornerback earlier this season.
"Our defensive line got pressure and I seen [Robertson] rolling out, and I anticipated him throwing a short throw," Smith said. "So, I kind of jumped it, and he ended up throwing it right to me."
The Wildcats cut the lead to 10 late in the game. Robertson connected with Earnest Pettway for a 14-yard touchdown pass to trim the deficit to 31-21 with 1:21 left in the game.
Matthews said the Dukes only played a few plays in man coverage on defense, and that was a key to stopping Robertson.
"All [John Robertson's] big plays last week against Maine came with Maine in man-to-man," Matthews said. "Maine ran man-to-man the entire game, and when he broke free against Maine all the Maine defensive backs had their back turned to him. We played probably five snaps of man-to-man coverage. When he broke through one or two gold shirts, I wanted another two looking at him."
The win keeps JMU's playoff hopes alive, but maybe more importantly it gives them confidence heading into their final three games of the season.
"I don't think it's just the win [that's important]," Smith said. "I think it's that the offense and defense were clicking at the same time. That's a real positive thing to look forward to going into the next three games."
Contact Assistant Sports Editor Tommy Keeler at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or firstname.lastname@example.org Follow on Twitter @tkeelernvd