Dec. 9, 2008


By Nate Crossman
Special to

James Madison senior Rodney Landers sounded matter-of-fact in describing Saturday’s 31-27 come-from-behind victory over Colonial Athletic Association rival Villanova in the quarterfinals of the FCS playoffs, which propelled the Duke to a semifinal date with Montana Friday night.

Landers, who scored the game-winning touchdown on a 1-yard run with 1 minute, 38 seconds to play, talked about both team’s toughness and how he believed the game would be decided by a late turnover, before stating, “That’s been pretty much the story of our season. Everybody knew what we had to do; we had to drive down and score (a touchdown).”

Landers’ ambivalence has something to do with the fact that the win, although it occurred in the playoffs, probably doesn’t crack JMU’s top three of most dramatic of the season.

The Dukes have been the top team in the FCS since early October, but maintaining the top spot hasn’t been easy. The Dukes have won a pair of games with one second or less on the clock, and a third by erasing a 21-0 halftime deficit against the reigning national champs.

“It’s made us a well-tested team,” Landers said. “It’s something that started real small in the beginning, but has snowballed into something amazing. It’s become infectious throughout our team.

“If there’s time on the clock, we think we have a chance to win the game.”

The drama began on Sept. 20 against Appalachian State. Trailing 21-0 at halftime, the Bulldogs outscored the Mountaineers 35-11 in the second half, with Landers rushing for the game-winning touchdown with 2:31 to play.

Three weeks later against Richmond, the special-teams unit was the hero. With the game tied 31-31, Scotty McGee returned a punt 69 yards to give JMU a 38-31 lead with one second remaining.

The Bulldogs one-upped themselves the following week against Villanova, as Landers connected with receiver Bosco Williams for a 35-yard, Hail-Mary touchdown pass with no time on the clock for a 23-19 win.

JMU also won its opening-round playoff game, against Wofford, 38-35.

The common factor in all the close wins has been the outstanding play of Landers, who’s the only Walter Payton Award finalist still in the playoffs. Landers has been one of the most potent offensive weapons in all of college football, rushing for 1,686 yards and 16 touchdowns, and throwing for 1,519 yards and 21 touchdowns to go along with only four interceptions. But it’s not only his physical gifts that make Landers a good end-of-game player, according to Dukes coach Mickey Matthews.

“Rodney’s the rare individual that has great athletic ability, and combines that with a tremendous competitive spirit,” Matthews said. “God blessed him with a lot of ability, but I cannot overestimate how hard he competes. He’s going to win the game; he’s going to get us in that end zone.”

Part of Landers’ drive stems from being overlooked as a signal caller coming out of Virginia Beach’s Tallwood High. Landers received interest from several FBS teams, but as a defensive or utility player and not a quarterback. JMU was the first school to guarantee him the chance to play quarterback.

Because he has more rushing than passing yards, Landers still doesn’t receive the quarterback respect of Appalachian State’s Armanti Edwards, or even Central Arkansas’ Nathan Brown. Landers, however, isn’t concerned with individual respect.

“I’m not really worried about putting up numbers,” Landers said. “I’m worried about putting our team in the position to put points on the board and win the game.”

Moving On; Going Home

The CAA still found it worthwhile to hold a teleconference this week since there are two CAA teams among the four remaining. In addition to JMU, which will host Montana at 8 p.m. Friday in Harrisonburg, Richmond will travel to Cedar Falls, Iowa’s University of Northern Iowa Dome Saturday for a 4 p.m. showdown against the Panthers. The game will be Richmond’s first in a dome.

The Spiders staged the biggest upset of the quarterfinals, beating three-time defending champ Appalachian State 33-13. Richmond, which lost to the Mountaineers in last year’s semifinal round, accomplished the feat by out-rushing Appalachian State 238-39, and taking advantage of seven Mountaineers turnovers, including five interceptions by quarterback Armanti Edwards.

“Armanti Edwards, as great as he is, the ball just bounced the other way for him and we were able to get it,” Richmond coach Mike London said. “We came out of there with a lot of confidence.”

One individual player who came out with a lot of confidence was senior running back Josh Vaughan, who accounted for 133 of those rushing yards and three touchdowns. Vaughan began the season with a sense of entitlement, according to London, which hurt his production. London tried to shame that sense of entitlement out of him by not starting him against VMI, the sixth game of the season, in favor of freshman Garrett Wilkins. London’s plan worked, as since the VMI game Vaughan has rushed for 1,283 yards and 16 touchdowns.

“From that game on he’s been tremendous in terms of his production and attitude,” London said. “His approach has been, ‘This is my position, this is my team and I’m going to carry the team.”

Although Richmond’s defense played well, it benefited from an ailing Edwards. Nursing an injured knee and hip, Edwards rushed for only three yards, which was 69 less than his average.

Northern Iowa had an interception returned 100 yards for a touchdown, lost a pair of fumbles and had a punt blocked – in the first half – but still managed to beat New Hampshire 36-34. That’s because the Wildcats committed six turnovers of their own, including four interceptions by quarterback R.J. Toman and a blocked punt that was downed for a safety.

Montana avenged a regular-season loss to Weber State, beating the Wildcats 24-13. The win sets up a rematch of the 2004 national championship game, which James Madison won. It also pits two coaches who are friends. Matthews and Montana’s Bobby Hauck often commiserate at coaches’ conventions and other events, and have shared many ideas over the years, according to Matthews.

Extra Points

Albany junior David McCarty rushed for a career-high 271 yards as the Great Danes beat Jacksonville 28-0 in the Gridiron Class, which features the champions of the Northeast and Pioneer Conferences. Albany is the first Northeast Conference team to win the game in its three years of existence…For the second year in a row, Jackson State and Grambling State will face one another for the Southwestern Athletic Conference Championship. The game is Saturday in Birmingham, Ala. JSU won the Eastern Division title by beating Alabama A&M, while Grambling State wrapped up the Western Division by knocking off Southern.