By David Coulson
College Sports Journal
HARRISONBURG, VA. — What started as a marathon ended with a sprint for James Madison quarterback Justin Thorpe, who leaped into the end zone to complete a nine-yard scramble as the No. 4-ranked Dukes held off No. 10 Towson 13-10 Saturday afternoon in a Colonial Athletic Association showdown.
"I told the kids, that was a championship drive at the end," said JMU coach Mickey Matthews, who picked up his 100th career win. "Sometimes, God smiles on the Dukes."
Whether divinity was involved, or not, two powerful Football Championship Subdivision defenses dominated in a game JMU led 6-3 through three and a half quarters before both offenses came to life at the end of the game.
Bottled up for most of the day and trailing by three points, Towson quarterback Grant Enders led the Tigers on a methodical, 14-play, 92-yard drive and concluded it with a seven-yard bootleg run that gave the Tigers a 10-6 lead with 3:21 remaining.
But while the Tigers (2-2 overall, 1-1 in the CAA) exhausted most of the fourth quarter clock, enough of it remained for James Madison (4-1, 2-0) to answer the final bell.
"We just all got together as a team and said we know what we can do as an offense," explained, Thorpe, who was 11-of-19 for 119 yards passing and rushed nine times for 27 yards. "We practice the two-minute drill every (day). We just moved down the field. The key is to not get too excited. We were kind of like robots on that drive."
Thorpe completed six consecutive passes to move the Dukes into scoring position and then made his final dash for the goal line with 1:24 to play.
"That's the nightmare that I had worried about since last week," said Towson coach Rob Ambrose. "We contained (Thorpe) for three quarters."
Towson had one final possession to turn the game around and moved to its own 43 for a second and five situation with 58 seconds left after Enders completed two passes and scrambled for five yards.
But with Towson closing in on D.J. Soven's field goal range, the normally sure-handed Tom Ryan dropped a pass that would have given the Tigers a first down in JMU territory.
Soven had converted a 40-yard field goal with 11 seconds left in the first half for Towson's only points before the touchdown drive and a Ryan catch would have put the Tigers within a first down of a potential overtime-forcing kick.
On the next play, Enders sailed a high throw over the head of Spencer Wilkins that JMU free safety Dean Marlowe intercepted at the Duke 41. Marlowe, who had picked off another pass to set up the second James Madison field goal in the second quarter, returned the ball three yards before making a victory slide at the 44.
"We play every down as if its our last," said Marlowe. "(Enders) actually overthrew the ball. I was in the right place at the right time."
It brought an end to classic defensive struggle in a game that had the hard-hitting intensity of a late-round playoff battle.
"They were good, it just came down to mistakes I made," said Enders, who was 20-of-32 for 147 yards and two interceptions and had 10 rushes for 37 yards and one fumble. "You can't turn the ball over three times and beat a defense like this. I'm very unhappy with my performance."
This CAA contest, played on a warm, fall afternoon, was a 180-degree contrast to the Old Dominion-New Hampshire encounter of two weeks ago where the Monarchs had beaten the Wildcats 64-61 in game devoid of defense.
JMU and Towson combined for 13 punts, with the Dukes only converting 2-of-12 third downs and the Tigers only marginally better at 5-of-16. The two teams were also just 1-of-3 on fourth downs.
"They have a heck of a defense, we just made a play at the end of the game and came away with the 'W'," Thorpe said. "It was more a credit to them than us messing up."
The two teams combined for just 230 yards of total offense in the first half and managed only 99 more yards in the scoreless third quarter.
"I don't want to slight that last team we played (LSU, which handed TU 38-22 loss), but given the choice between the two, I don't want to play the Dukes again … at least not until later," Ambrose said. "I'm really proud of my guys. we've been on a pretty good 14-day drive and we ran out of juice at the end."
The two marquee running backs for the two sides, Towson's Terrance West and JMU's Dae'Quan Scott — playing for the first time in three weeks after suffering a high ankle sprain — had only occasional sparks of success.
West pounded out 112 yards on 28 carries, but never had a rush longer than 18 yards. Scott's cutback tendencies were keep in check by the Tiger defense, which limited him to 85 yards on 22 attempts and his most effective run was for 16 yards.
Like the winner of a heavyweight slugfest. Matthews was just as respectful of the Tigers as Ambrose was of the Dukes.
"They are going to win a bunch of games, I wouldn't be surprised if we see them in December," said Matthews. "If we played 10 times, they would win five and we would win five. We just made a few plays at the end."