Stephen Swofford / DN-R
HARRISONBURG – When there was havoc in Maine’s backfield Saturday, chances were Kyre Hawkins was somewhere nearby.
As James Madison ratcheted up the pressure on Black Bears’ quarterback Chris Ferguson, Hawkins seemed to be the one routinely left untouched to harass the redshirt freshman. He picked up a career-high two sacks to kill a pair of promising Maine drives in the first half.
It made a difference in JMU’s eventual 28-10 win over Maine in the Colonial Athletic Association opener.
“That’s an organized pattern blitz,” second-year coach Mike Houston said. “We were attacking their protection and somebody’s going to come free depending how they pick it up. He happened to be the one.”
Hawkins’ first sack came off one of those well-executed blitz packages. JMU senior Andrew Ankrah rushed inside, drawing Maine left tackle Jamil Demby away from Ferguson’s blind side. Hawkins blitzed through the gap that was created and took down Ferguson to force a Maine punt after the Black Bears approached midfield.
On Maine’s next drive, Hawkins shed his block with ease and helped take Ferguson to the ground, which momentarily took Maine out of field goal range late in the first half.
Hawkins, who was charged with covering Maine running back Josh Mack most of the game, said he focused on the sophomore to determine when he was going to rush the quarterback.
“We were just focusing on if the running back is picking up on people, if he’s not going out on a pass or anything, we’d take that as an opportunity to add on an extra guy,” said Hawkins, who finished with six tackles. “We worked on those [things] all week and when it comes to game time, we just go out there and execute it.”
Mack entered the game as the CAA’s leading rusher, and was a focal point all week for the Dukes. JMU bottled him up for most of the game with the exception of a 60-yard touchdown run on Maine’s first drive of the second half. The sophomore rushed for 84 yards on 23 carries without the touchdown, including an 18-yard carry that was his only other rush of more than 10 yards.
On Mack’s two runs of over 10 yards, Hawkins was double-teamed both times and taken out of the play.
“When we step out there on defense, we want to be the most physical guys at the point of contact,” Hawkins said. “That’s our biggest focus during the week; we come out there and we’re physical. Practice is honestly way harder than the games, so when we go out there and play these guys, it’s really not as difficult. We have a great scheme for every offense and that’s a great tribute to [defensive coordinator Bob Trott].”
In addition to Hawkins’ run support, the senior linebacker used his athleticism to make life difficult for Mack when he went out to run routes. Mack caught three passes for 20 yards, but Hawkins broke up two other passes intended for him.
Hawkins denied Mack a screen pass on third-and-2 in the third quarter and then jarred the ball loose on a short route in the fourth quarter to set up a third-and-long situation.
“I’m really not looking at the quarterback, I’m looking at my man,” Hawkins said. “Honestly, when he sticks his hand out, I just put my hand where the ball’s supposed to go, it’s just that simple.”