Delaware-James Madison Revisted
Another look at the JMU hit on QB Pat Devlin
By David Coulson
Executive Editor/Managing Partner
College Sporting News
HARRISONBURG, Va. — It isn't often that you watch a football game on a given Saturday and are left trying to figure out its implications nearly a week later, but that's where I find myself as I attempt to dissect last Saturday's 13-10 victory by No. 5 Deleware at No. 3 James Madison in Colonial Athletic Association play.
But then it isn't often that an All-American quarterback gets knocked out of the game with a concussion on a team's second offensive play on a hit that many in the crowd of 16,205 at Bridgeforth Stadium and watching on television thought should have been penalized.
Oh, and should we mention that the same player who committed the questionable tackle was quoted in the local newspaper that week that he and the JMU defense would be targeting the star quarterback to knock him out of the game?
Then, in the final scene of this thick-as-pudding plot, a redshirt freshman quarterback, who had struggled throughout the day, got into rhythm in the second half and teamed with an inexperienced place kicker to lift the Blue Hens from the jaws of defeat to an improbable victory.
Adding fuel to the game was the fact that CAA officials decided later this week that there wasn't anything illegal about the injury-causing hit.
This wasn't just another Football Championship Subdivision game.
THE QUOTE AND THE HIT
If it wasn't bad enough that JMU defensive end D.J. Bryant hit Delaware quaterback Pat Devlin seven yards behind the line of scrimmage and injured Devlin with what many would describe as a WWE-type body slam, there was that little matter of Bryant saying the Dukes would target Devlin and his broken, non-throwing, right wrist during the game.
Since when did it become acceptable for a player from any team to pop off about injuring another player?
In my world, no matter what sport you are talking about this side of boxing, that type of behavior has a name, classless.
From my seat in the press box of Bridgeforth Stadium, I was stunned to see what Bryant did. I was even more shocked to see that veteran referee Herbert Stayton didn't even throw a flag.
Now I will give Stayton a pass on not knowing what Bryant had said in print. There probably are not many referees who read about the game they are working the day before.
And I'll give Bryant some leeway for the initial hit on Devlin, which occurred after Devlin had handed off on the zone read play to running back Andrew Pierce. But instead of letting Devlin go after that, Bryant then decided it was acceptable to throw Devlin to the ground.
Devlin stayed on the ground for a few seconds, staggered to his feet like a punch-drunk prize fighter and then sank back to the ground as Delaware's training staff rushed onto the field.
Devlin tried to convince them to let him stay in the game, but he was escorted back to the sidelines, never to return to the game.
In my eyes, it was clearly a personal foul and when I watched numerous replays of the sequence, I was even more convinced that Bryant had committed unnecessary roughness.
Devlin was diagnosed with a mild concussion, but he was well enough to encourage backup quarterback Trevor Sasek the rest of the game, lessons that proved invaluable as Sasek overcame a rocky start to lead Delaware to a critical win.
A DIFFERENCE IN OPINION
Delaware coach K.C. Keeler scolded Stayton as Devlin was being helped off the field, but after the game took the diplomatic approach to the controversy by saying he "didn't see anything."
"All I can say is our quarterback was seven yards behind the line of scrimmage and he went down," Keeler elaborated. "I'll have to see the film to say anymore."
Of course, we all know that all of these conferences have ridiculous "gag" orders on coaches that prohibit them from exercising their First Amendment rights to free speech. But that is a subject for another time.
Some of the Delaware players were not so shy about expressing their feelings.
When asked if thought the shot on Devlin was a late hit, wide receiver Ron Jones said "Yes, we thought it was."
Blue Hen sophomore linebacker Paul Worrilow had a more subtle answer.
"It was a fight out there. We knew coming in there, it was going to be like this."
Devlin also offered his take on the play.
"What happened was he swung me around and I just hit the ground, and as soon as I hit the ground, it was like the world is turning," Devlin said. "It was like I was doing one of those relay races with the bat. What I should have done was I should have laid down on the ground. It was a whiplash kind of thing."
While explaining he would be fine for the next game this Saturday against Maine, Devlin said he was somewhat embarrassed he had to leave the JMU contest.
"I'm fine," Devlin said. "The test I failed (against JMU) was falling over on the field."
It wasn't surprising that JMU coach Mickey Matthews had a different view on the play.
"It was just the zone option," said Matthews. "D.J. is unblocked on that play. Our quarterback takes a lot of hits on the zone option."
Bryant said he didn't think he did anything wrong, either.
THE CAA RESPONSE
It took three days for CAA commissioner Tom Yeager to release an official statement on the game.
Here is Yeager's statement in full:
"In consultation with the conference’s supervisor of officials and the game referee, I have determined the play in which Delaware quarterback Pat Devlin was injured was not an unsportsmanlike act."
"Our supervisor and game referee have distinguished officiating experience and their extensive postgame video review has concluded the play was an acceptable play which did not warrant a penalty.* I respect and concur with that opinion."
"The CAA is concerned with any injury to any player, particularly concussion injuries, which are a special point of emphasis this year.* Player safety will always be at the forefront of our interests."
"This was a hard fought game between two undefeated and top-five ranked teams which was not decided until the final seconds of the game.* It was exactly the type of contest expected from these two respected championship programs.* There were 17 penalties called in the game, but none were determined to be personal fouls for aggressive play such as unnecessary roughness or late hits.* Our game officials also reported the players on the field were not overly engaged in taunting, which is often the case in games of this magnitude."
"I am aware that prior to and after the game there were several public comments by both teams which have fueled rumors and innuendo about the game.* The CAA Football office will address its concerns about certain inappropriate comments with the involved individuals and their institutions.* All such matters will be handled privately and internally."
So my first question to Yeager would be, if the hit by Bryant itself wasn't unsportsmanlike, what about the premeditation of the act?
In a court of law, Bryant's quote would have made for some pretty damaging evidence.
Secondly, this isn't about how distinguished the supervisor of officials and referee are. Even the best of officials make mistakes every weekend. How about owning up to an error?
As Yeager noted, concussions are a particular point of emphasis in college football this season. And this writer has seen officials show a large degree of sensitivity to hits on quarterbacks already this year.
For example, a hit that I witnessed on Cal Poly quarterback Tony Smith by Montana last month was correctly called a personal foul. In that situation, Smith was hit on a quarterback keeper.
Like Devlin, Smith was also forced from the game with a concussion, but the Great West officials called that play correctly an protected the quarterback. There were several other personal fouls called on quarterback hits in the Cal Poly-Montana game.
If you want make further comparisons, there is little doubt that the hit on Devlin would have drawn a penalty flag and probably a substantial fine had it occurred in an NFL game.
It is not about how many flags you throw, it's about throwing the flags when they need to be thrown.
It's too bad that the heroics of Delaware's defense, along with Sasek and kicker Mike Perry, were somewhat overshadowed by Bryant's hit.
Sasek fumbled away a center-quarterback exchange at the JMU three, shortly after replacing Devlin, and threw an interception in the third period to kill off another Blue Hen scoring threat.
But when the game was on the line, the inexperienced passer was tough as nails.
"I definitely felt more confident than the beginning of the game since my first drive didn't end up too well," Sasek said. "My team helped me out through this, calmed me down.
Sasek completed his final seven passes after going 6-of-14 earlier to finish 13-of-21 for 124 yards. Mixing runs by Sasek and Pierce, along with the passing, Delaware got into position for two fourth-quarter field goals from Perry.
The first from 47 yards was the longest Perry had ever made in a competitive game.
"That one was the tougher of the two," said Perry, a junior who replaced ex-Blue Hen All-American Jon Striefsky this season. "There was a lot less pressure on the second one, because it was a chip shot.
Yes, like it is easy to kick a 28-yard field goal with three seconds remaining in a 10-10 CAA showdown, with JMU's always enthusiastic fans screaming at you.
"It was staying focused and following through," Perry added. "It was basically muscle memory."
In Keeler's mind, there was little doubt that Perry would make the kick.
"We practice those situations every day in practice," said Keeler. I had a lot of confidence, he's been really good in practice."
The Delaware defense limited JMU to 283 yards and held the Dukes scoreless in the second half. On offense, the Blue Hens (5-0 overall, 2-0 in the CAA) managed only 206 yards — its lowest winning output in five years — but it was just enough.
"I told (the offense) that 14 points were all we were going to need," said Worrilow. "They weren't going to score more than 10."
Worrilow proved to be right on everything, but the final score. He missed it by one point.
THE OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR
Assistant coaches are not noticed a whole lot, unless their players make big mistakes. But Keeler and others were quick to give some special credit to Delaware offensive coordinator Jim Hofher in the wake of the victory.
"Jim Hofher does a fine job in helping these guys understand that you are one play away from playing and Trevor was literally one play away today," Keeler said.
Hofher, who has head coaching experience at his alma mater Cornell and Buffalo, was masterful in his play-calling during the latter stages of the game.
"You just keep calling things until you find something that works," said the humble offensive coordinator. "We had to keep hunting and pecking, until we found something that was successful."
Hofher was like a proud papa as he watched Sasek come through in the youngster's biggest test thus far.
"We all have a sense of what our players' strengths and weaknesses are," said Hofher. "Trevor is a very talented player for us."
Even Matthews was impressed with the Delaware win as he watched his team lose its first CAA game and suffer its first loss overall.
"To lose your starting quarterback on the (second) play of the game and still win, you've got to give their kids a lot of credit," Matthews said. "A couple times they were on the ropes, and they refused to give in.''