By David Coulson
College Sports Journal
RICHMOND, KY. — You couldn’t blame place kicker Cameron Starke and his James Madison teammates for thinking they were experiencing a Deja Vu moment at the end of Saturday’s NCAA Division I Football first-round playoff game at Eastern Kentucky.
Starke had drilled a 40-yard field goal — just his second career three-pointer — on the final play of the game to lift the Dukes to a 27-24 victory at Liberty in the third week of the season. And on Saturday, he found himself in a similar setting with higher stakes.
After a pair of EKU time outs to try to ice the redshirt sophomore, Starke boomed a 35-yard field goal from the left hash as time expired to lift JMU to a 20-17 victory in a game that featured two former NCAA champions at Roy Kidd Stadium.
Starke had missed a right-hash kick from 36 yards out with eight minutes remaining in the third period, similar to a right-hash miss he had at Liberty.
The win booted James Madison (8-4) into a second-round matchup at No. 2-seeded North Dakota State (10-1) next Saturday and brought an end to the season for Eastern Kentucky, making its 20th appearance in the playoffs after sharing the Ohio Valley Conference title with Tennessee Tech and Jacksonville State.
JMU’s offense, led again by quarterback Justin Thorpe for the third week in a row after a five-game suspension for violating team rules, pull the game out of the fire with an 11-play drive from the Duke 36 to the EKU 19 in the final 5:45 of the game.
Just like the other two games since his return, Thorpe (28 carries, 93 yards rushing, 9-of-16, 149 yards passing) gave James Madison just enough of a spark to put the Dukes into a position to win.
Running back Dae’Quan Scott picked up a key first down on a fourth and two run from the Colonel 43, smashing ahead for four yards to keep the drive alive just six plays before Starke’s winning kick.
Trailing 17-7 with less than six minutes left in the third period, the Dukes clamped down on the Eastern Kentucky attack and gave the offense a chance to get back into the game.
Matt Denham (17 carries, 125 yards, eight straight 100-yard rushing games) rumbled 66 yards to put EKU in position for H.B. Benjamin’s one-yard scoring plunge as the Colonels seemed close to a knockout punch against JMU.
Denham’s run would prove to be Eastern Kentucky’s lone first down of the second half as JMU limited the Colonels to eight first downs for the game and 213 yards of total offense.
But Starke initiated the comeback with a 21-yard field goal to bring JMU within a touchdown with 27 seconds left in the third quarter to end an 11-play drive that began at the Duke 47.
After holding EKU to a three and out, James Madison took little time to tie the score as a 25-yard hook-up between Thorpe and Kerby Long and a 16-yard burst from Jordan Anderson (15 carries, 71 yards, two TDs) set up Anderson’s 24-yard scoring scamper with 10 minutes on the fourth-period clock.
Following another three and out by EKU, which had seven possessions of three or less plays during the game and finished 1-of-8 on third-down conversions, James Madison got the ball back with plenty of time for the game-winning drive.
One of the biggest plays of the game occurred in the first period when JMU’s Jakarie Jackson tripped up Justin Bell from behind at the Duke 16 on a 75-yard punt return to save a touchdown.
Two plays later, EKU quarterback T.J. Pryor committed the lone turnover of the game with a pass interception off of play action.
Leavander Jones read the route of Matt Lengel and leaped in front of the much-larger tight end near the back of the end zone. Middle linebacker Stephon Robertson blitzed Pryor from the right side as the right-handed Pryor sprinted out of the pocket on the left side.
Sparked by those two plays from Jackson and Jones, JMU launched a 14-play, 80-yard, seven-miunte drive to take the lead at 7-0 on Anderson’s one-yard scoring surge just 65 seconds into the second quarter.
Eastern Kentucky took advantage of a short field, set up by a short, 30-yard punt by David Skahn to avoid another Bell return, and evened the score later in the second stanza.
The Colonels marched 48 yards in seven plays, with Benjamin banging over from the one two plays after Pryor connected with Tyrone Goard for 23 yards, two plays before.
EKU used the two-minute offense to get in position for Luke Pray’s 48-yard field goal at the end of the first half as the Colonels went to the locker room with a 10-7 lead.
But as has been Eastern Kentucky’s tendency in recent playoff appearances, the Colonels were out-played in the second half against a Colonial Athletic Association opponent.
Combined with Tennessee Tech’s 34-14 loss at home to Central Arkansas, the OVC has dropped 18 consecutive playoff games and hasn’t won since Murray State beat Western Illinois 34-6 in the first round of the 1996 playoffs.
JMU used its efficient option attack to grind out 393 yards of total offense and held the ball for over 40 minutes.