HARRISONBURG – Before Saturday, the last time James Madison had trailed was in its second round playoff contest against New Hampshire last season.
That was seven games ago, so when Maine took a lead against the Dukes at Bridgeforth Stadium on a 60-yard run from running back Josh Mack on the first drive of the second half, top-ranked JMU had to play in an unfamiliar situation.
“All of a sudden they’ve got the lead, they’ve got the momentum and they’ve got the ball,” second-year JMU coach Mike Houston said. “It gets a little dicey.”
Trailing by three points, JMU used its steady defense and an offense that just kept chipping away until it broke through to rally past the Black Bears for a 28-10 win in front of a sold-out crowd of 25,330 in Harrisonburg.
Dukes quarterback Bryan Schor connected with outstretched wide receiver David Eldridge on a 22-yard touchdown throw that helped his team regain the lead and take an advantage it would never relinquish.
“Having a tough game like this and having to grind it out, it is really good for us,” Schor said. “We didn’t start fast, so we had to keep our heads down and keep plugging away until something good happened.”
Maine would drive toward midfield a few times after Eldridge’s touchdown catch, but when Black Bears freshman quarterback Chris Ferguson had a pass intercepted by JMU junior cornerback Rashad Robinson late in the third, the Dukes found an opportunity to separate.
On the consequent possession for JMU, Schor found running back Taylor Woods leaking out of the backfield for a 9-yard touchdown pitch and catch. No defender was within 10 yards of Woods, who trotted untouched into the purple-painted turf after securing the catch.
“That was a big turning point in the ball game, and that was a big time play by Rashad,” Houston said. “That wasn’t just that the quarterback made a mistake, but Rashad made a great read and acrobatic play on the ball.
“That’s a big time play.”
Robinson’s interception was the second of three Ferguson threw Saturday as JMU’s defense pressured the first-year quarterback throughout the game.
Houston said the Dukes' defensive plan involved rattling the freshman.
Ferguson was sacked four times including twice by senior linebacker Kyre Hawkins. Two of the three interceptions Ferguson threw came on third down.
“I have to watch the tape, but I thought there were a lot of times when [Ferguson] held onto the ball way too long,” Maine coach Joe Harasymiak said. “Throughout the game, he probably just needed to get rid of the ball, but that’s what happens when you see great defenses.
“You probably start to see things that you’re not supposed to see and that maybe aren’t even there.”
JMU senior safety Jordan Brown notched six tackles, a sack and an interception.
“The relationship and chemistry we have are allowing us to see plays happen before they even happen,” Brown said. “I think it’s start to becoming a lot more comfortable for all of us on defense.”
Woods’ score put the game out of reach for Maine at 21-10 with about 12 minutes left in fourth quarter.
Schor threw his fourth touchdown with under seven minutes to play when he connected with wide receiver Ezrah Archie for a three-yard score.
Schor finished the game 21-of-31 for 281 yards and the four touchdowns. Three of the four touchdown throws came in the second half after throwing an interception in the first half.
“We’ve probably gotten to used to Bryan not making a mistake, so when he makes one, it magnifies it,” Houston said. “So I thought he played a really solid game, and we talked at there end about how we really needed a game like that.
“One we had to really gut out because I think it really helps us grow.”
Harasymiak said JMU is built to outlast its opponents.
“We’re trying to get to the point in our program to where we beat teams like James Madison,” Harasymiak said. “Thought we had chances there in the second half, but it kind of got away from us.”
JMU (4-0, 1-0 CAA) continues CAA play next week when it travels to Delaware. Maine (1-2, 0-2 CAA) is off next week.