On Saturday, the James Madison football team lost badly (you may select another, more virulent adjective, if you choose) to Villanova, and, after a five-hour drive, 12 hours of sleep, a women's basketball game and the new James Bond movie (I never liked Bond films until Daniel Craig, but that's a separate blog), I have come up with a post-Villanova blog that pares your grievances/concerns into three categories: quarterback, coaches and playoffs.
This is what Villanova coach Andy Talley said about JMU quarterback Justin Thorpe after Saturday's game.
"If you chart his throws over a season, everything is right from the linebacker scope to flank, so everything is in front of you. Nothing really goes vertically deep on you, so you can kind of set your defense in a little closer to the line of scrimmage and know he's going to flick out there quick... so you can put a lot of people in the box and just run to the flank, and that's what we did."
Doesn't make Thorpe sound real hard to defend, does it? Now, a few stats.
JMU is 6-0 against teams with losing records this year, and three of those wins came against total pushovers: Saint Francis, Alcorn State and Rhode Island (which remains winless). You also could include Georgia State on that list.
The Dukes are 1-3 against teams with winning records - 1-2 if you don't count I-A West Virginia. Their only victory against a winning I-AA team is over Towson. In games against good teams - Richmond and Villanova - JMU has looked really bad. And so has Thorpe.
In the five wins (in which Thorpe has played) against the losing teams, an average game for Thorpe is 16-of-23 for 184 yards. In the four games against winning teams, Thorpe's average game is 10-of-18 for 113 yards. Of his nine interceptions, five have come in the four games against the winning teams - two against Richmond and two against Villanova.
In five games against the losing teams, Thorpe rushes for an average of 87 yards on 14 carries. He's scored six touchdowns. In four games against the winning teams, he's averaged 14 carries and 41 yards. He's scored two touchdowns.
According to these stats, Thorpe plays well against bad teams and struggles against good teams. This is Thorpe's fifth season, and the big question is: Can he get better?
Everyone admits that Michael Birdsong is a superior passer - and it doesn't look like the true freshman is a handicap when he runs, either. Birdsong may not be as fast or as nimble as Thorpe, but he can pick up first downs and compensates for a lack of shifty with power and a willingness to throw shoulders.
(Will Birdsong be ready for Saturday? Unlikely. He was moving around at practice last week and was off crutches after Wednesday, but ankles can be moody and nag. But he has healed quickly from injuries in the past. He suffered a knee injury the summer before his junior year of high school and wasn't supposed to be healthy until spring. He was playing football by the middle of the season.)
JMU likes to run the option, but that's difficult when there are eight guys within five yards of the ball on every play. You need to be able to throw - at least make the other team fear the throw - and, right now, JMU doesn't have that. Look at what Talley said. He dismissed JMU as a threat to pass it more than 10 yards.
(An aside related to that: JMU needs to get other people involved. Sometimes it seems like the offense is just Thorpe and Dae'Quan Scott. Example: DeAndre' Smith had one catch for five yards against Villanova. For the season, he has just 25 catches and averages 27.6 yards per game. He's caught just two touchdowns. For a guy JMU wants to be involved so bad, he's not really involved at all.)
Birdsong got one game and about two quarters. Did the offense look any worse? Not really. Was there a major dropoff from a fifth-year junior to a true freshman? I didn't think so. (I was disappointed, though, that JMU didn't let Birdsong throw it more downfield. That his strength; play to it.) Also, give him more than one game and two quarters. If you're going to make him the starter, make him the starter.
JMU coach Mickey Matthews said after the Villanova game that, "we did miss Michael very badly. No question. They were stacked up so much on the line of scrimmage, we needed to be able to throw it, and it was hard for us to throw it."
He, perhaps inadvertently, admitted why by referencing Birdsong. Thorpe isn't enough of a passing threat. And, if they know that, why do they keep putting him out there and acting surprised when the offense struggles?
Now, the coaches. A lot of people criticize the play-calling and offensive coordinator Jeff Durden - and some of that is warranted. Like, why hand off the ball six yards behind the line of scrimmage on fourth and inches? But offenses don't work without quarterbacks, and JMU hasn't had a consistent one since 2008.
I don't know for sure if anyone's job is in trouble, and I don't feel comfortable calling for someone to be fired. That's also not my job. But I will say I don't think Matthews should be fired. JMU is a top 10 I-AA program every year and lands major talent. The program isn't in a bad place, but I understand the frustration - especially with the talent level and, like I mentioned with DeAndre' Smith, the appearance that it's too often being wasted.
But, if JMU misses the playoffs this season, it's not unreasonable to think there will/should be changes. If JMU does whiff on the postseason, it would be third time in four years, and that would be especially embarrassing this year considering the preseason expectations, as well as what Madison's program has become with the 25,000-seat stadium, money spent, etc.
And speaking of playoffs... Does JMU make it? Well, the Dukes need to beat Old Dominion on Saturday.
Right now, the CAA has five teams, including JMU, with seven or more wins, and if Towson wins Saturday, that makes six. JMU has one win against those teams - and it's over the team that needs to win Saturday to get seven wins. Ever notice that Matthews always talks about how good Towson is? Perhaps there's a correlation...
Despite what Matthews says all the time, Madison's schedule isn't that good. It lost - horribly - to the two best I-AA teams it played, and its I-AA non-conference opponents were cupcakes from weak conferences. JMU needs to beat Old Dominion. And, if the Dukes could do it convincingly, that would be good, too.
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