November 10, 2012
Final Playoff Push
HARRISONBURG - Justin Thorpe's injured ring finger on his right hand still looks terrible - and he agrees.
"Yeah, it does," the James Madison quarterback said.
But the mangled digit on his throwing hand is getting better, and now that he's the Dukes' starting QB again, it probably hurts a little less.
When JMU, ranked ninth in The Sports Network's Division I-AA football poll, visits No. 21 Villanova today for a key Colonial Athletic Association game, it will be Thorpe's first start since he was benched Oct. 20 during a loss at Richmond. The fifth-year junior regained the starting job this week after winning CAA Offensive Player of the Week honors for his performance in last Saturday's 31-7 win at Maine.
"It is what it is," said Thorpe, who has completed 63.6 percent of 162 passes for 1,251 yards and eight touchdowns but seven interceptions. "I'm a starter for now. I'm going to try to take advantage of the opportunity that I'm getting again and just try to come out here and produce offense."
It's what he did last week, going 9-of-12 for 108 yards and a touchdown with no interceptions, as well as rushing 16 times for 111 yards and two touchdowns in the Dukes' best offensive performance in over a month. The showing convinced coach Mickey Matthews to reinsert Thorpe as the starter - a job Matthews said Thorpe would have even if Michael Birdsong hadn't injured his ankle at Maine.
Birdsong replaced Thorpe late in third quarter at Richmond and started the last two games before Thorpe supplanted him last week. In practice, Thorpe also handled the benching well. His standout practices are what got him playing time against Maine and eventually led to him regaining his job.
"I love football, so nothing was going to stop me from coming out here and practicing hard," Thorpe said. "And, playing football, you never know how long you've got left. Nothing changed. Just came out and threw the ball and ran the ball like I usually do."
Madison will hope that continues today. This game is big for both teams.
For JMU (7-2 overall, 5-1 in the CAA), a win keeps it alive for the conference championship and enhances its playoff chances. The Dukes and New Hampshire (8-2, 6-1) lead the CAA standings. The Wildcats host Towson (5-4, 4-2) today in their regular-season finale. Madison plays its last game next week against Old Dominion (8-1, 5-1), which is ineligible for the title because it is leaving the league next year.
If JMU and New Hampshire finish in a tie for first place, there will be tiebreaker based on common opponents, because Madison and UNH do not play each other this season.
Matthews said he's not certain the Dukes - who have just one victory over a ranked opponent (Towson) - are a lock for the playoffs right now.
"We almost feel like we need to win out to ensure ourselves of getting in the tournament," he said. "We're not approaching it to win one or two; we want to win the league very badly. We feel like we have some momentum after [Maine] for the first time this year, actually."
For Villanova (6-3, 4-2), another loss might knock it out of the playoff picture - it is one of six CAA teams on the postseason bubble. After JMU today, the Wildcats face Delaware in their final regular-season game.
"The most you can hope for in this league... is with the 10th game of the year is that you're still in the mix for a league championship, and you're in the mix for a playoff spot - and Villanova is in that mix," Villanova coach Andy Talley said.
Today's matchup between JMU and Villanova features two similar teams. Both have running quarterbacks and stiff defenses. On offense, the Wildcats are led by freshman QB John Robertson, who is averaging 248.6 yards of total offense per game.
Villanova has the second-best defense in the CAA, allowing 22.3 points per game. JMU is first, giving up 17.6, which is 12th best in I-AA. The Dukes also lead the conference in total defense, yielding 305.3 yards per game - numbers bolstered by last week's performance versus Maine. JMU held the Black Bears to just 104 yards of total offense.
"Teams go up and down," Robertson said of facing Madison's defense after its performance last week. "... I don't really feel like it's a big factor. We watch all the film from every game. They're a good defense pretty much every game they've played."
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