A lack of offense in the first half and defensive breakdowns in the second doomed No. 6 William and Mary at Zable Stadium Saturday night, as the Tribe fell to No. 12 James Madison, 20-14 in its conference opener.
The game was really a tale of two halves. In the first, while the Tribe’s defense kept the College (2-2, 0-1 CAA) within shouting distance down 10-0, the offense sputtered as the Tribe’s passing game was once again ineffective. Sophomore quarterback Mike Graham, making the first start of his college career, bounced back in the second half to throw for two touchdowns, but it wasn’t enough as JMU ran all over the College’s defense, finishing the game with 271 yards on the ground. A Tribe fumble late in the third quarter derailed the College’s comeback attempt.
“We made way too many mistakes,” head coach Jimmye Laycock said. “We can’t have fumbles and we can’t have missed blocks and missed assignments and missed tackles against a good team. We’re not that good.”
When he dropped back to throw, JMU quarterback Justin Thorpe was extremely efficient, going 3 of 4 for 69 yards and a touchdown pass. But the Dukes really burned the Tribe when he pulled it down or handed it off. Thorpe carried 14 times for 89 yards, while tailback Dae’Quan Scott led JMU with 29 rushes for 120 yards and a touchdown.
“We knew this is a team that gets a lot of their yards after contact,” junior linebacker Jabrel Mines, who led the Tribe with 13 tackles and a sack, said. “There were a couple of plays tonight where we weren’t in the proper angle, didn’t keep the inside and missed tackles.”
The College could see some silver linings in the loss, though. Graham laid claim to the starting role with an impressive second-half performance. The sophomore from Charlottesville finished the game at 14 of 26 for 215 yards and two touchdowns. And the addition of junior wideout Ryan Moody, who saw his first game action since tearing his ACL in April, after halftime provided a spark to the passing game that had been lacking in the team’s first three games. In the second half alone, Moody grabbed three passes for 82 yards, twice boxing out smaller JMU defensive backs and climbing the ladder to make big catches.
The College’s running game, however, floundered. Senior running back Jonathan Grimes carried 23 times for just 74 yards. Freshman Keith McBride carried twice for seven yards, but cost the Tribe a good chance at a comeback when he fumbled the ball with just over a minute left in the third. After JMU recovered on the Tribe’s 24 up 10-7, Scott punched it in for a touchdown to make it a two-score game.
The scoring didn’t start until the second quarter. On the first play of the period and just the third play of JMU’s drive, Thorpe hit wideout Kirby Long on the right sideline, fitting the ball between the zones of the Tribe cornerback and safety. Long then broke a tackle and streaked down the sideline and into the endzone for a 52 yard catch and run, putting the Dukes up 7-0.
After the College’s offense continued its first-half woes and went three and out, JMU got back to work, keeping the ball on the ground for all 10 plays, going 46 yards and kicking a 26 yard field goal to extend the Dukes’ lead to 10.
The half would end with the Tribe going three and out twice more (the team failed to gain first down for the whole second quarter). But the defense would keep the Dukes from pulling away, as halftime came with the score still 10-0.
The College’s offense came alive to start the third, though. Senior wideout Ryan Woolfolk dropped what would have been a touchdown on a perfectly thrown deep ball from Graham, but the passing game rebounded, as Graham hit senior wideout D.J. Mangas for an 11-yard gain on 3rd and 9. But on the ensuing first down, Graham’s inexperience showed. As pressure flushed him out of the pocket, the sophomore tried to throw the ball away to the sideline, instead tossing a lateral. The ball rolled backward and out of bounds, setting the Tribe up for a 2nd and 28 on its own 34. After Graham found Mangas for a gain of nine, though, Moody entered the game with a bang, going up over a JMU cornerback and snatching a Graham deep ball near the sideline for a 38 yard catch and run down to the Dukes’ 19 for a new set of downs.
“Ryan gave us a little spark,” Laycock said. “He’s a veteran receiver who’s played a lot and he knows how to go for a ball, he knows how to judge it, he knows what he can get away with out there on one on one. That’s invaluable to have that kind of experience.”
The drive would stall in the red zone and the College looked poised to get its goose egg off the score board with a field goal, but a high snap sailed over holder Brent Caprio’s head, giving JMU the ball back with its shutout still intact.
Finally, the Tribe got on the board with its next drive. Graham once again hit Moody for a big gain along the sideline, found Mangas for 26 on a 3rd and 13, and ultimately connected with Mangas for a 38 yard touchdown catch and run.
Suddenly, the College was not only down just a field goal, but it looked capable of moving the ball through the air.
“Once we got the momentum going I thought we were unstoppable,” Graham said.
The defense held the Dukes once again on their ensuing possession, but when the Tribe took over on its own 18, the momentum shifted quickly back to JMU. McBride coughed the ball up, giving the Dukes possession on the College’s 24. Five plays later, Scott ran it in from three yards out to push JMU’s lead back to 10.
The Tribe’s pass protection then began to falter, and two sacks led to a three and out, giving the ball back to the Dukes with 11 minutes, 24 seconds left in the fourth.
From there, a combination of Scott, Thorpe, and power runner Jauan Latney ate up clock and field, as the Dukes — once again without passing — went on a 12 play, 60 yard drive that ended with a field goal to give the Dukes a 20-7 stronghold with just 4:17 remaining.
Graham and the offense wouldn’t throw in the towel, though, as the sophomore led the College in the hurry up for a 12 play, 79 yard drive capped off with a beautiful touch pass — while falling down and with a pass rusher in his face — from Graham to senior tight end Alex Gottlieb for a 10 yard touchdown to make it a 20-14 game with 1:25 left.
“[Graham] did a heck of a job,” Laycock said. “He had to handle a lot of the offense because we got into throwing mode. He had to handle a lot of throws, sets and formations and all that kind of stuff and that’s not easy to do and then going on in the two minute drill he hasn’t had that many reps in the two minute drill.”
The ensuing onside kick from sophomore kicker Drake Kuhn, though, bounced up and into the arms of a waiting JMU player, and after the College’s defense once again allowed Scott to break a run for 17 yards and a first down, the game was over.
The College will look to regroup when it hits the road next Saturday to take on a 1-3 (0-1 CAA) Villanova team.