Montana Tops JMU, 35-27, in I-AA Semifinals
Saturday, December 13, 2008
HARRISONBURG, Va., Dec. 12 -- When James Madison quarterback Rodney Landers crumpled to the ground and then limped off the field late in the first half, he took with him the Dukes' hopes for a second national title.
Top-seeded JMU had counted on Landers, a Walter Payton award finalist, for several spectacular comebacks this season. But he could do little but encourage his teammates from the sideline in the second half of the Dukes' 35-27 loss to fourth-seeded Montana in a division I-AA semifinal at sold out Bridgeforth Stadium on Friday night.
The Grizzlies (14-1) advanced to next Friday's championship game in Chattanooga, Tenn., where they will meet the winner of Saturday's other semifinal between Richmond and Northern Iowa. Montana is making its second title game appearance in five years. The Grizzlies lost to JMU in the 2004 championship game.
Backup quarterback Drew Dudzik, a sophomore from Clifton and former All-Met from Centreville, turned in a gutsy performance, but it wasn't enough to overcome four turnovers by JMU (12-2), which lost for the first time in 12 games.
"I've just never been around a game where we never punted and lost. That's a new one for me," JMU Coach Mickey Matthews said. "We're probably lucky it wasn't worse. We had the ball on the ground three or four other times, and we got back on it. We just fumbled the dadgum ball."
The Dukes ranked fourth in division I-AA in turnovers coming into the game, with only 12 giveaways in 13 games. But on this frigid night, they couldn't seem to hold on to the ball. Landers, Scotty McGee and Patrick Ward fumbled, and Dudzik threw an interception.
Landers injured his ankle in last week's quarterfinal against Villanova and apparently aggravated the injury with 2 minutes 20 seconds to go in the second quarter when he carried the ball for a short gain. He finished with 17 carries for 84 yards. It was only the second time in the last five years that a JMU quarterback missed a play because of injury. (Landers missed one play last year at Rhode Island.)
The ankle "just wasn't where I needed it to be to be effective," Landers said. "Drew's a great player, and I didn't want to hurt the team by going out there and trying to play through an injury. I knew I couldn't give 100 percent."
With Landers out, JMU turned to Dudzik. After throwing an interception on his first series, he kept his composure, nearly leading the Dukes back from an 18-point second-half deficit. Dudzik was 6 of 13 for 70 yards and carried 12 times for 88 yards and two touchdowns.
"The team definitely was confident in me, I was confident in them," Dudzik said. "We're always going out there feeling like we're going to win."
JMU was lucky to trail only 14-10 at halftime after three costly first-half turnovers. The last time the Dukes had three turnovers in a game was against Duke in the season opener, their only loss of the season.
JMU's only lead of the first half came on its first possession. The Dukes put together a 13-play, 46-yard drive that ate up 6:02 and culminated in a 32-yard field goal by Dave Stannard.
Montana seized the lead on its first drive, which ended with a two-yard touchdown run by Chase Reynolds. On the ensuing kickoff, McGee -- who broke Washington Redskins great Gary Clark's JMU career record of four kick returns for touchdowns -- dropped the ball when he fielded it, picked it up then lost it again when Caleb McSurdy stripped it and Donny Lisowski fell on it.
McGee's fumble set up the Grizzlies' second score, a two-play drive capped by Reynolds's second touchdown run.
Landers carried the ball seven times during JMU's next drive. But when the Dukes got near the goal line, he handed it off to Eugene Holloman for a one-yard touchdown run that pulled JMU to 14-10. Holloman finished with 105 yards on 21 carries, giving JMU its first pair of 1,000-yard rushers (Holloman and Landers) in the same season.
The Dukes were putting together another clock-eating drive, moving the ball inside the Montana 20, when Landers lost control of the ball and Tyler Pelluer recovered it, another scoring opportunity squandered.