By David Coulson
College Sports Journal
LANDOVER, MD. — Playing against Bowl Championship Series teams will never be the same for James Madison.
After scoring only the second win ever by a Football Championship Subdivision squad against a team ranked in the Associated Press Top-25, beating Virginia Tech 21-16 in 2010, the Dukes are not likely to sneak up on any FBS program ever again.
So you had to expect that JMU had the attention of AP No. 9-ranked West Virginia and the 45,511 fans on Saturday at the Washington Redskins' FedEx Field.
And that definitely wasn't a good thing.
"When I agreed to play this game, I didn't feel real good when (West Virginia) put up 70 (points) on Clemson," JMU coach Mickey Matthews said.
And after losing 42-12 to the Mountaineers, Matthews knew he was right about the strength of West Virginia.
"I told (WVU coach) Dana (Holgorson) tonight, we didn't to play them in a doubleheader. What they did tonight they've done to Clemson and some other good teams."
Matthews wouldn't be terribly surprised to see West Virginia's senior quarterback Geno Smith walking away with a Heisman Trophy.
All Smith did on Saturday was complete 34-of-39 passes for 411 yards and five touchdowns, breaking the West Virginia career record for passing yards in the process with 8,191 and counting.
The Mountaineer attack rolled up 569 yards of total offense, compared to 300 for James Madison.
How soon West Virginia fans have forgotten another quarterback, free-wheeling Pat White — the leader of those run-oriented Rich Rodriguez spread teams of the last decade.
After trying in vain to knock Smith down in the first quarter with standard, four-man pressure as the Mountaineers rolled to a 21-0 lead, Matthews — the defensive whiz who at one time was leading Marshall to I-AA championships and title berths — made some adjustments.
"We blitzed and played man-to-man coverage forever to make it competitive," Matthews said. "We were trying to get pressure with four (rushers in the early part of the game) and we just couldn't do it."
That change was not completely success, as attested to by Smith's superlative stat line.
"We are big up front and we couldn't get him down," Matthews exclaimed of the 6-foot-3, 220-pound passer. "He has to be one of the two, or three best players in the country."
James Madison didn't help its chances when it broke out of the starting gate like Zippy Chippy getting to run at the Kentucky Derby.
"We couldn't get it going in the first quarter and that's exactly what we didn't want to do," said Matthews.
JMU — one of the true speed teams of FCS — watched WVU repeatedly find good matchups on offense as Smith hit receivers Stedmon Bailey (13 catches, 173 yards, three TDs) and Tavon Austin (11 catches, 113 yards, one touchdown) with lethal precision.
But as good as the high-octane West Virginia attack was, the Dukes also hurt themselves with poor execution on both sides of the ball.
"We didn't execute," said JMU running back Jordan Anderson (17 carries, 75 yards). "That's why the game went the way it went. If we executed, it could have been a different game."
As good as West Virginia was in building a 28-3 halftime lead, James Madison came storming back early in the third quarter.
"We really got on our kids at the half about not keeping their poise," Matthews said. "We played so unsound in the first half."
But reminiscent of a great comeback in 2008, when the Dukes trailed Appalachian State 21-0 at halftime and came back to win 35-32, sparked by a 99-yard kickoff return by Scottie McGee to open the third quarter, JMU found ways to quickly build momentum against West Virginia after the intermission.
This time it was back-to-back stuffs by the defense that got JMU worked up.
On third and one from the JMU 48, defensive end Brandon Lee and outside linebacker Jamie Veney stopped Mountaineer running back Shawne Alston (14 carries, 62 yards rushing, one TD) for a one-yard loss.
Trying to continue its dominance in the second half, West Virginia made a tactical blunder by going for it one fourth and two, but another rushing attempt by Alston was stacked up by safety Jakarie Jackson (game-high 14 tackles, including 10 solo stops) at the JMU 48 and a measurement proved that the Mountaineers had come up short of first down.
Several blocking changes made in the locker room at the half paid immediate dividends when Anderson dashed off runs of 24 and 20 yards to give the Dukes a first and goal at the three.
But four attempted runs by Anderson came up empty and James Madison turned the ball over at the one.
Having dodged one bullet, WVU promptly gave James Madison more ammo when Alston was slammed to the end zone turf by free safety Dean Marlowe for a safety on the very next play.
That made it 28-5 and Dejor Simmons provided the Dukes with excellent field position at their own 41 with a 27-yard return on the ensuing free kick.
But JMU short-circuited to a three and out and West Virginia needed just eight plays to increase the lead to 35-5 on Smith's 30-yard scoring strike to Bailey.
Another return by Simmons of 36 yards to the JMU 37 and a 33-yard strike from quarterback Justin Thorpe (6-of-13 passing for 71 yards, 14 carries rushing for 44 yards) to Brian Barlow pushed the ball to the WVU 24.
Thorpe then cracked off his best run of the evening, scampering 15 yards to give the Dukes another first and goal, this time at the WVU nine.
On third and one, a false start proved destructive, moving the ball back to the six and Thorpe was late on a pass to the end zone. The ball was tipped and intercepted by West Virginia's Tyler Anderson for a drive-killing touchback.
"We got to the one-yard line twice in the third quarter and had a chance to make it a one or two score game, to make it competitive," Matthews said. "We couldn't block them down there. You don't deserve to win, if you can't score from the one."
That window of opportunity closed after that and the two teams traded touchdowns in the fourth quarter.
"The reason the scoreboard looks bad right now is because of those two goal-line stands," said Matthews. "We had some guys not show up tonight, especially offensively."
And now, with the non-conference schedule complete, the Dukes will turn their focus squarely on to the Colonial Athletic Association, where they will poem play on the road next Saturday at Rhode Island.
"We know the conference is a big thing for us," said Thorpe. "Having a taste of the playoffs last year, we're looking forward to doing something we haven't done here in awhile."
And James Madison is in position to learn from both the 2011 campaign and Saturday's losing lesson against West Virginia.
"We learned a lot about ourselves and the future of our team," said All-American linebacker Stephon Robertson, who had five tackles, including one tackle for loss. "We made some execution errors on defense. It was definitely a humbling experience."