HARRISONBURG - Believing his football team has become too predictable, James Madison coach Mickey Matthews said he wants to return to the "Rodney Landers offense."
Quite a goal.
Landers, perhaps the best quarterback in JMU football history, guided a run-first option attack that made use of motion and misdirection to reach the 2008 Division I-AA semifinals.
To try to recapture those days, Madison is going back to Justin Thorpe.
Matthews said Monday that the junior quarterback will start this week at Villanova after losing his starting job two weeks ago to true freshman Michael Birdsong, who hurt his right ankle at the end of Saturday's 31-7 win over Maine and will be out indefinitely.
Thorpe isn't getting the nod just because Birdsong, who started the last two games, is injured. The decision, Matthews said, was based on Thorpe's performance coming off the bench at Maine.
The 6-foot-1, 225-pounder from Richmond completed nine of 12 passes for 108 yards with a touchdown and no interceptions while rushing for 111 yards and two touchdowns on 16 carries to earn Colonial Athletic Association Player of the Week honors.
"Justin played so well, he would have started this week, regardless," Matthews said.
Neither Thorpe nor Birdsong responded to text messages seeking comment Monday.
The Dukes (7-2 overall, 5-1 in the Colonial Athletic Association) - who moved up one spot to No. 9 in The Sports Network's I-AA poll - started re-Landers-ization of its offense against Maine. It led to Madison's best offensive performance in weeks.
Matthews said JMU got away from the option this season in an effort to pass more. The Dukes have run 654 plays, throwing 37 percent of the time. In 2011, they threw 27 percent of the time. Thorpe is JMU's best option quarterback, although Birdsong has shown ample mobility.
Thorpe was benched in the third quarter of the Dukes' loss to Richmond after throwing two interceptions in crucial situations and failing to convert on a fourth-and-short. Birdsong entered the game and nearly rallied JMU from a 19-point deficit. Against Georgia State, in his first start, Birdsong was adequate, but it was obvious he was a true freshman.
When pulled against Richmond, Thorpe didn't handle the switch well. He kept away from the offense on the sideline and appeared to pout. He later apologized for his reaction, and Matthews said he has been a team player in practice since the benching.
"I think he grew up a lot that week," Matthews said. "It was difficult for all of us after that Richmond game, but he handled it very good. He responded with a very good week of practice last week - a great attitude, a team guy, and I think the kids recognized that."
Thorpe got playing time against Maine because of that exceptional week of practice, and when he entered the game on planned series, he played too well for the coaches to pull him - staying in until the last minute of the rout, when Birdsong came on for mop-up duty.
"He's a very good football player," Matthews said of Thorpe. "He played his best game, threw the ball very effectively. He's a force, and he really played well Saturday. Our kids enjoyed having him. He was back with us. We left the practice field Wednesday [and] we were going to play him because he practiced so good."
Obviously, Birdsong's mop-up duty didn't go as smoothly as expected.
With 30 seconds left in the game and JMU ahead 31-0, Birdsong kept the ball on an option, getting tackled and severely injuring his ankle in the process (he also fumbled on the play, and Maine safety Jamal Clay returned it 67 yards for a touchdown to avert a shutout).
Matthews said the ankle wasn't broken (he described it as "tore up") but that Birdsong would be out for "a while" and may not return this season.
As it turns out, Birdsong shouldn't have been hit on the play. The call was for Birdsong to hand off, and Matthews said JMU ran the wrong play.
"It was a mess-up on that play," Matthews said. "He was sent into the game for him to hand it off. We certainly didn't want him handling the ball with a minute left in the game.
We were in the wrong formation and we ran the wrong play."
With Birdsong injured, Matthews said redshirt freshman Lafonte Thourogood will be the No. 2 quarterback. A Vanderbilt transfer and three-star recruit from Ocean Lakes High School in Virginia Beach, Thourogood entered the preseason as the presumed No. 2 behind Thorpe, but hamstring injuries cost him a shot at the job.
The 6-2, 235-pounder is getting better and has made strides in practice, but Matthews said he's still an inconsistent passer - which you might expect. Vanderbilt converted him to running back, and he's battled hamstring problems since high school.
"He's gotten better," Matthews said. "He doesn't have a lot of game experience, but he's actually much better than he was four or five weeks ago. His repetitions have been limited because of Michael, but he's a lot better football player than he was four, five, six weeks ago, so we're going to get him ready this week."
In the event of a catastrophe, JMU's No. 3 quarterback would be walk-on redshirt freshman Mack Spees. Tailback Dae'Quan Scott, a former high school quarterback, also is a possibility, but he would play only in wildcat formations - which he has done before.
But can Thorpe move past the inconsistency that has defined his career and continue the momentum from the Maine win? Matthews said he can.
"I would anticipate he would play very well the rest of the season," Matthews said. "It's going to be good."
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