Dukes struggle with pass defense

By Tommy Keeler Jr.

James Madison’s biggest weakness continues to haunt it — the secondary.

The Dukes allowed 395 passing yards in a 41-38 loss to Stony Brook last Saturday. Stony Brook was known mostly for its strong running game, but Seawolves quarterback Lyle Negron showed he could pass as well.

“Hats off to their quarterback,” James Madison coach Mickey Matthews said. “That’s the best a quarterback has played against us this year. [Negron] really put on a show. We just couldn’t tackle him. We had seven sacks, and it seemed like we missed 10 sacks.”

A lack of depth has hurt the Dukes all season in the secondary. DeAndre Smith moved from wide receiver to cornerback, and the Dukes have had to deal with several injuries. JMU has had to play four freshmen in the secondary throughout the season.

Matthews said all the teams in the Colonial Athletic Association are aware of how poor JMU has been against the pass.

“We’re really young [in the secondary] and I think everybody’s seeing that and [Stony Brook] did a nice job of scheming us,” Matthews said. “We got real good coaches in this league, and when they see you got a problem they really take advantage of it. It’s been our Achilles’ heel. It cost us some games early, and some games were closer than they needed to be.”

FRESHMAN ON THE RISE: One of the bright spots for the Dukes late in the season has been the play of true freshman wide receiver Brandon Ravenel.

In the loss to Stony Brook, Ravenel had three catches for 49 yards and one touchdown. Ravenel is fifth on the team with 18 receptions for 291 yards.

“He’s played real well,” Matthews said of Ravenel. “The last three or four weeks he’s playing better, playing with a lot more confidence. He’s got a lot of potential.

“We’re probably playing more true freshmen this year than in my entire coaching career. We’re playing a lot of true freshmen and Brandon’s one of them and he’s playing very well.”

SILVER LINING: One thing that Matthews was pleased about with his squad against the Seawolves was how hard they played in the second half.

“We did hang in there and gave ourselves a chance to win,” Matthews said. “I told the guys after the game I was proud of them, that they hung in there and fought til the end.”

The Dukes trailed 31-17 at the half, but rallied to make a game of it. Matthews said he was very happy with how quarterback Michael Birdsong played after throwing two interceptions early in the game.

I thought the last two-and-a-half quarters was the best [Birdsong] has played all year,” Matthews said. “We had a lot of respect for Stony Brook’s defense. They’re very good. We played well on offense the last two-and-a-half quarters against Stony Brook and their defense. We just needed one more play and we couldn’t get it.”

After giving up a touchdown on Stony Brook’s opening drive of the second half, the Dukes held the Seawolves to three points.

Matthews said the defense played better in the second half, but it was too little, too late.

“We started to play some pass defense in the second half. We did that, and they had 140 yards and 10 points in the second half,” Matthews said. “It’s like we closed the gate after the horse was gone. We just dug ourselves too deep of a hole in the first half.”

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