Dukes gain momentum with win

By Tommy Keeler Jr.

HARRISONBURG — If James Madison University was looking for some momentum heading into its final three games, they certainly found it in their 31-21 win over Villanova on Saturday.

The Dukes played well on both sides of the ball, and coaches and players alike agreed it was their most complete game of the season.

“Looking back across the season, I feel like this is by far the most complete game,” JMU senior linebacker Stephon Roberston said. “[JMU quarterback Michael] Birdsong and the boys on the offensive side were moving the ball. And I feel like the biggest thing on offense was time of possession. I felt like it was great as far as keeping the ball, keeping the defense off their feet, so by the time we would get out we would make the three stops we needed to get them the ball back. When we work back and forth like that and catch the defense and our opponents’ offense off guard it’s just really a complete game.”

JMU’s defense shut down Villanova quarterback John Robertson, who had rushed for over 1,000 yards this season. They held him to 88 yards below his season average per game with only 44 yards on 17 carries.

On the offensive side of the ball, JMU had 364 yards of total offense. Birdsong played a key role in that as he threw for 207 yards on 20 for 29 passing.

“We played well today,” Birdsong said. “I had time back there in the pocket. Wide receivers were getting open. The boys were running up front. Execution — that’s what happens.”

Birdsong said the offensive line played well, and had a huge impact on the success of the offense.

“That’s what kick started us on offense,” Birdsong said of the offensive line. “When you can run behind those guys, and they can give me time to throw it, we’re a dangerous squad. I don’t think many teams can stop this offense when we do it like that.”

STRONG UP FRONT: Not only was JMU’s offensive line big in the win over Villanova, but the defensive line was pivotal as well.

The Dukes were able to get pressure from their front four and hurry John Robertson into some bad decisions.

“It was really important for the D-line to get that rush,” Stephon Robertson said. “And their offensive line was probably the best we’ve faced this year, so that’s a testament to our game planning, and how hard the guys played up front. It’s rough up there in trenches. It’s rough, but they did good today.”

The Wildcats, who entered the game with the top rushing offense in the CAA, were held to only 146 yards rushing.

The Dukes had seven sacks, including two from defensive end Tyler Snow and 1.5 from defensive tackle Jordan Stanton. JMU now has 29 sacks this season, second in the CAA.

“We thought our defensive front was athletic enough to put some defensive pressure on him,” JMU coach Mickey Matthews said. “I think as you watched the game, I think we did.”

PLAYOFF ATTITUDE: The Dukes may have to win all three of their remaining games to make the playoffs. Another loss would put them on the bubble, but the players said they don’t want to leave anything to chance.

“We’ve won one out of four. We’ve got three games left,” Stephon Roberston said. “In our minds there is no ‘you can lose one of these last three and still get in.’ I like to go on a sure bet, so we have to go out here and win these next three. Then it’s no science down to it, it’s absolute — win these next three and let everything take care of itself.”

JMU at 6-3 and 3-2 in the CAA, plays at New Hampshire this weekend. Both teams are 3-2 in the conference. Then JMU hosts Stony Brook on Nov. 16, and finish up at Towson, who is 4-2 in the conference, on Nov. 23.

The playoffs have been expanded to 24 teams this season, which could help the Dukes. Matthews said the win over Villanova was big for the Dukes.

“I still don’t know if we have to win every game to get in the tournament, I’m certainly not on the committee,” Matthews said. “I think [Villanova is] very good. They were the conference favorite for a reason. We just needed to beat a good football team.”

Contact Assistant Sports Editor Tommy Keeler at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or tkeeler@nvdaily.com Follow on Twitter @tkeelernvd