By David Coulson
Executive Editor/Managing Partner
College Sporting News
LYNCHBURG, VA. If you were expecting the game between No. 14-ranked James Madison and No. 20 Liberty to come down to a game-winning field goal, you probably would have expected the Flames' All-American specialist Matt Bevins to have the contest on his powerful right foot.
But Bevins injured a quad muscle in his right leg in the first half on a pair of missed 43-yard attempts and JMU's Cameron Starke turned out to be the game's hero when he drilled a career-long, 40-yard field goal on the final play to lift the Dukes to a 27-24 victory over Liberty before a crowd of 18,878 at Williams Stadium.
Few would have been surprised that this simmering intrastate rivalry came down to one last play, but how the game ended up on Starke's right foot wasn't expected.
Two of the best teams in the Football Championship Subdivision struggled through a combined 19 accepted penalties for 212 yards and, if Starke had somehow missed his final placement, Liberty (1-2) would have been hit for another 15-yard flag for roughing the kicker.
"I really don't get it," said Liberty coach Danny Rocco, after seeing his squad flagged 11 times for 120 yards. "We looked like an undisciplined team at times."
And JMU coach Mickey Matthews could have seconded that sentiment, while watching his Dukes (2-1) get nailed for four roughing the passer penalties alone.
But Matthews chose to reflect on the positives of the James Madison victory, rather than the overall sloppiness.
Liberty had not "been beaten here in two years, since we beat them here the last time," Matthews said. "That was a championship drive in the last two minutes,"
Liberty senior quarterback Mike Brown (24-of-29 passing for 298 yards and two TDs, 15 carries for 35 yards and one score) forged three ties, at 10-all, 17-17 and 24-24 in the second half and had a chance to give the Flames the lead after his 43-yard touchdown pass to Chris Summers with 7:45 remaining.
With Summers facing double coverage throughout the night and limited to three catches for 50 yards, redshirt-senior receiver B.J. Hayes was also a significant weapon with career highs for receptions (nine) and yardage (158), including one grab for a five-yard TD at the end of the third period.
The Flame defense forced JMU's only three and out of the game to give Brown the ball at their own 16 with six minutes left and Brown completed a 27-yard strike to Summers at the JMU 40 for what looked to be a key third-down conversion six plays later.
But instead of having the ball in scoring range, the Flames were nailed for a holding penalty to negate the play and JMU snuffed the drive out with a sack by defensive end Aaron Harper to end the threat.
Liberty punter Mike Larsson, after watching the entire contest from the sideline, pinned James Madison back at its own 25 with a 59-yard boot, but with 2:11 on the clock, the Dukes had just enough time and just enough of quarterback Justin Thorpe to pull out the game.
Thorpe (13-of-18 for 141 yards passing, 11 carries for 30 yards rushing) found Kerby Long (six catches, 61 yards) open over the middle for 32 yards on a third and four play to push the ball to the Liberty 37 and then converted a third and four speed option run to give the Dukes another crucial first down at the LU 27.
"He didn't play perfect, but Justin played much better (than the previous two weeks)," Mickey Matthews said.
And Thorpe's final, first-down carry may have been the most important.
"On that third down play, where Thorpe got the four yards, I think that was right on the edge (of Starke's range)," said Rocco.
Dae'Quan Scott (29 carries, 129 yards, three TDs) bashed ahead for four more yards to the 23 and JMU ran the clock to two seconds to set up Starke's final kick by pushing the ball to the left hash mark.
"Once we got the ball on the left hash, I knew Cameron would be fine," said JMU special teams coach Clayton Matthews, the son of Mickey Matthews.
Not everyone had that same confidence in the inexperienced, redshirt junior.
Starke had made a 31-yard field goal against North Carolina two weeks ago, but also had a momentum-sapping 20-yard miss off the upright at the end of the first half with the Dukes trying to cut into a 28-7 lead.
His only other college kicks had been six successful extra points in the first three games and a 32-yard field goal in the second quarter that had given JMU an early 10-0 lead.
But even after Rocco tried to ice Starke with a time out, the youngster proved to be cool under pressure.
"It was a great kick by Cameron," said Mickey Matthews. "It was straight down the middle and it would have been good from 60 yards."
The win was an important confidence booster for the Dukes, who open Colonial Athletic Association play next week at No. 5 William & Mary.
"We are a much better offensive team than we were two weeks ago," said Mickey Matthews.
The loss left the Flames on the short end again of a potentially program-changing victory, with a non-conference road game at No. 19 Lehigh on the horizon next Saturday.
"We'll find out a little bit about ourselves this week," said Rocco. "We expected to play better than we did."
The loss was just as painful for the Liberty players.
"Penalties killed us in the red zone," said Brown. "We're disappointed, it certainly was a missed opportunity."