Flames rally past Dukes

HARRISONBURG — Liberty had the perfect formula for stopping JMU’s high-powered offense — keep JMU’s offense off the field.

The Flames used a long fourth-quarter drive to rally for a 26-21 victory over the Dukes in the first round of the Football Championship Sudivision playoffs on Saturday.

“They made a few more plays than we did today,” JMU head coach Everett Withers said. “We made too many mistakes to go and win at a championship level.”

The Flames took the lead in the fourth quarter with a 17-play drive, which ate up 11 minutes of game time.

The Flames dodged a bullet to start the drive. Liberty quarterback Josh Woodrum was able to recover his own fumble inside the JMU 10-yard line and run back to the line of scrimmage.

“They just brought one more from the edge than we could block, and a guy tomahawked me down,” Woodrum said. “I just saw it bouncing around, and I saw our running back went to dive for it and missed it. So, I was just following him and picked it up, and I was like ‘oh my gosh, I can’t drop this. This is the worst place to have a fumble.'”

The Flames’ good fortune continued throughout the drive as they converted four third-down conversions to keep JMU’s defense on the field.

Liberty’s Nicky Fualaau scored on a 1-yard plunge to give the Flames a 26-21 lead with just 2:53 left in the game. The drive started with 13:54 left in the game.

“It’s really a testament to our strength coach and our coaches and everyone that’s always taught us to finish and not just settle for things,” Woodrum said of the drive. “That was a great thing for our offense. We kind of laid the hammer down on them, and told them that we weren’t going to go away. To me that was one of the biggest turning points of the game.”

JMU had one last chance. The Dukes drove the ball down to the Liberty 27-yard line in the final minute. On fourth-and-10 from the Liberty 27, JMU quarterback Vad Lee was unable to connect with 6-foot-5 senior wide receiver Daniel Brown in the end zone to seal the Liberty win.

“It was just one-on-one [coverage],” Lee said. “D.A. [Brown] beat him pretty good, but he had safety help. D.A. [Brown], he’s been the target all year, if I had to do it again I’d throw it to him again.”

The loss snapped the Dukes seven-game win streak. JMU looked like it was in total control at the half with a 21-10 lead.

The Dukes rallied from an early 10-0 deficit taking advantage of four Liberty turnovers.

JMU redshirt senior running back Jauan Latney ran 73 yards untouched for a touchdown to start the scoring for the Dukes in the second quarter.

“That was definitely the furthest I’ve ever had to run with the ball in my hands,” Latney said with a smile. “Everybody’s been saying I’m slow, so I just had to show them I can’t be run down.”

Lee added a 9-yard touchdown run, and threw a 16-yard touchdown to DeAndre Smith to give the Dukes the lead at the half.

The second half was a much different story for the JMU offense. The Dukes had only 55 yards of total offense, including 48 on their final drive of the game.

“They did what they wanted to do,” Withers said. “They wanted to keep our offense off the field. We couldn’t get into a rhythm on offense. We couldn’t run the ball very well. We didn’t make enough plays in the passing game.”

JMU only had four offensive possessions in the second half, including two three-and-outs.

Liberty scored on a 7-yard touchdown run by D.J. Abnar in the third quarter to cut the lead to 21-17. The drive included a 26-yard run by Javan Sashaty on a fake field goal attempt.

Liberty kicker John Lunsford, who hit from 61 yards earlier this year, cut the lead to 21-20 with a 56-yard field goal with 4:45 left in the third quarter.

The Flames will now play at Villanova next weekend in the second round of the playoffs.

The loss was especially tough for the 17 JMU seniors.

“It was a pretty good season. It just sucks that it goes down this way,” Latney said. “I’m proud of my team, and I can’t wait to see them play next year.”

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