Sep 29, 2009

Flames doused in wet loss to JMU

by Daniel Martinez

It rained, it poured and the James Madison University Dukes roared to a 24-10 win over Liberty on a rainy Saturday night.

That was what Liberty University’s highly anticipated football game, against one of its classic competitors (Liberty entered the game 5-9 all-time against JMU) boiled down to at the two-minute warning in the fourth quarter.

Officials predicted a record-breaking crowd of 20,000-plus and Liberty’s fans were motivated to show up early and loud after challenges from JMU students – who had promised to make the 90-mile trip from their campus in droves to make their presence felt.

By 7 p.m., when Liberty’s sophomore multi-position star Mike Brown waited for the kickoff, the day’s steady mist became steady showers that reminded everyone why Liberty’s hometown occasionally goes by the moniker “Drenchburg.”

But JMU defensive end Arthur Moats would later say for the sixth-ranked Dukes, “We’re never intimidated.”

The rain certainly could not quell the excitement of 15,132 fans who were hoping to see the Flames beat the Dukes at Williams Stadium for the first time in 20 years.

Brown gained a solid 25 yards on the opening kickoff, but the Flames sputtered early despite having senior quarterback Tommy Beecher back after missing last week with an injury. They turned the ball over after just one first down, and the Dukes drove 80 yards in six and a half minutes and kicked a 35-yard field goal to take a 3-0 lead.

“I said all week long [JMU] was fast and aggressive and they showed it,” Liberty Head Coach Danny Rocco said of JMU’s early play, which established their explosive running game.

Liberty did not waffle, though, and the Flames answered with an 80-yard drive of their own, kept alive by a sensational catch by sophomore wide receiver Chris Summers. Racing downfield with less than a minute to play in the first quarter, Summers wheeled around, caught a 43-yard pass from Beecher and toppled out of bounds at the 1-yard line.

“Tommy just put the ball in the right place,” Summers said.
It was a great break for the Flames, who took a 7-3 lead just moments later when Beecher scurried into the end zone on the first play of the second quarter.

They certainly tried. At one tense juncture, the Flames punted from deep in their own territory, not even lifting the ball to midfield, but junior linebacker Chad Brown flattened the JMU returner after he had gone just three yards. The Dukes shrugged off this small misfortune, snatching up 46 yards on the next five plays, the fifth of which saw tailback Jamal Sullivan give them the 10-7 lead with a 5-yard run into the end zone. The JMU defense then managed to hold off the Flames and carry the lead into halftime.

After the game, Rocco said he believed the Flames had “taken control of the tempo” of the game by the beginning of the fourth quarter, no matter the 10-10 score. Coming off a field goal by the Flames, the ensuing kickoff buried the Dukes deep in their own soggy territory. It was at that point that the game changed.

On first down from the 35-yard line, JMU quarterback Drew Dudzik took the snap, turned and stuffed the ball into the arms of tailback Corwin Acker, who had only just become a major player in the game after Sullivan left with a knee injury. Acker broke right, and, as Liberty senior defensive end Trey Jacobs later said, “the ball just got through.” Acker raced 65 yards downfield, eluding even the defenders who dove to try and trip him up, scoring the touchdown that Rocco called “the turning point of the game.”

A slow-building drive was squelched moments later when Beecher lost his helmet in a crowd of players and was hit, sending him to the sidelines holding a towel to his bleeding face, but would return on the Flames next drive.

While the Flames recovered to stop JMU on the far side of the field – with a very real chance of gaining great field position and surging for a score – they were done in when the Dukes’ Matt Goff smashed a 65-yard punt over the returner’s head, burying the
Flames at their own 29.

The Flames did battle back to stop JMU quickly after giving up the ball on downs, but JMU intercepted an errant pass on Liberty’s next drive, and six seconds of clock time later, Acker scored a second touchdown, this on a 13-yard run. The Flames would not recover, and the clock expired with the home team down by two touchdowns.

“[It’s] very disappointing,” Rocco said of the loss, which dropped the Flames’ record to 2-2. “I don’t see it as demoralizing – we will bounce back and be ready for next week – but we wanted to beat JMU.”

“We need to be more consistent,” Summers said of the Flames’ offense, which gained 217 total yards (compared to 361 in last week’s victory over Lafayette), 96 of them via the run and 121 via the pass.

“We need work in both areas,” Brown said. “We need to get better for us to win.”

By comparison, the Dukes racked up 348 total yards, 301 of them on the ground.

To emphasize his point, he gave an example. “[On] the 65-yard run, the safety didn’t make the tackle. The defense should not have allowed that play to happen.”

Matthews praised the Flames for a solid effort, and also gave a nod to the Liberty faithful.

“My hat must go off to the students. It’s a shame the weather was so bad, [because] it was a great atmosphere.”

Though neither Coach Rocco nor any of the players used the rain as an excuse, the Flames will hope for drier conditions next week, when they host West Virginia Wesleyan University at 3:30 p.m. next Saturday at Williams Stadium.

Contact Daniel Martinez at dpmartinez@liberty.edu.
 


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