Withers sees response to loss as a positive

By Tommy Keeler Jr.

HARRISONBURG — Many things went wrong for James Madison University on Saturday in its 30-23 overtime loss to Delaware. In most cases the Dukes simply beat themselves, but JMU coach Everett Withers said he was happy with how his players responded after the loss.

Withers said Sunday’s practice was on of the best they’ve had all season.

“They went out and they worked, they really, truly worked hard yesterday,” Withers said in his weekly press conference. “There were some communication on the field yesterday that I hadn’t heard in the first few weeks. Some of it was encouragement, some of it was leadership, getting after guys. Some of it was, I felt like guys were stepping out of their shells a little bit yesterday, which I’ve been trying to encourage a lot here lately. We got a great group of kids and I think we’re headed in the right direction.”

Withers likes to refer to things such as penalties, turnovers and dropped passes as self-inflicted wounds. The Dukes had a lot of “self-inflicted wounds” on Saturday.

Many of the miscues came in the special teams aspect of the game. The Dukes had a field goal blocked, missed an extra point and committed three offsides penalties on kickoffs late in the game. One of those offsides calls negated an onside kick recovery.

Withers said the positive side of those miscues was that JMU still had chances to win despite those plays.

“Those are things you can go back and hopefully correct and get better,” Withers said. “We’re in a game where we got an opportunity to win and we drop a touchdown, a field goal blocked, we miss an extra point, we’re offsides three times, we recover an onside kick and we’re offsides. And you still got a shot to win the game.”

Down by seven in the third quarter, JMU quarterback Vad Lee threw a perfect pass to a wide-open Daniel Brown, who had his defender beat by at least five yards. The usually sure-handed Brown dropped the pass at around the Delaware 20, in what would have been a sure touchdown.

JMU punter Gunnar Kane joined the blunder party with a minus-14 yard punt late in the first half. Kane punted from the Delaware 42 and shanked it. The punt went to about the Delaware 40 and then took a big bounce backwards before finally going out of bounds at the JMU 44.

“Kids make mistakes, you have to learn to move forward past them,” Withers said. “But you have to learn from them, too. That’s part of what this football team is doing each week — having to play games, but we’re having to learn from mistakes and learn from opportunities.”

BACK ON TRACK: One bright spot for JMU was the return of redshirt sophomore linebacker Gage Steele.

The Warren County graduate missed the first two games of the season due to a hip injury. He played sparingly in the next two games, as they tried to bring him back slowly. Against Delaware, Steele played the whole game and his impact was certainly felt.

Steele was tied for the lead in tackles with seven and had a big interception, which led to JMU’s game-tying field goal.

“It was good to get Gage [Steele] back,” Withers said of Steele. “Hopefully he continues to grow and get better.”

Steele was the top returning tackler for the Dukes this season. He finished second on the team in tackles last year. He said he was glad to be back and healthy.

“I just love being out there with my team,” Steele said.

The Dukes have struggled on defense this season, but made some strides against the Blue Hens. Steele said he’s confident the defense will keep getting better.

“We took a big step [Saturday],” Steele said of the defense. “We’re going to fix all the things that we need to, and we’re going to move on from it. It’s going to be good.”

NEW POSITION: Withers said back in the spring he knew senior wide receiver Marquis Woodyard was going to make it up high on the Dukes’ depth chart. Last week he decided to move Woodyard to defensive back, and it’s paid off for JMU.

“I take a lot of the blame for not moving him earlier,” Withers said. “Once we made the decision to move him over there, he’s done some really nice things for us and allowed us to do some things defensively. Is he perfect? No. Does he make mistakes? Yes. But we’ve got a lot of guys making mistakes. Our deal is to get him to grow and hopefully for the next seven games or so he can help our football team.”

Woodyard was impressive in his debut. He finished with six tackles, all of them solo, to help lead the Dukes on defense.

“He’s a good athlete, he can help us,” Withers said. “I thought he played really well.”

Contact staff writer Tommy Keeler at 540-465-5137 ext. 168, or tkeeler@nvdaily.com