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March 22, 2017

Minutemen lose final home game of season to James Madison

footBSaturday’s 17-14 loss by the Massachusetts football team at the hands of James Madison came by a similar means as many of UMass’ earlier losses, just in an unusual location.

At McGuirk Stadium, where the Minutemen were 4-0 prior to Saturday, UMass faced turnover issues in the on-and-off heavy rains throughout the game that led to 10 points by James Madison. UMass has faced turnover issues in its last couple of road games, leading to losses to Richmond and Maine, but have generally protected the ball at home.

“It’s certainly a disappointing loss. I’m not very excited about that loss,” UMass coach Kevin Morris said after the game. “The turnover right out of the gate where we gave them points and we weren’t able to overcome those turnovers to win the ballgame.”

On the Minutemen’s first three possessions of the game they ran a total of six plays and had three turnovers, which turned into 10 early points for the Dukes. On their first offensive play, Nelson took a handoff from Kyle Havens and ran to the right side before Jon Williams knocked the ball loose and JMU’s Scotty McGee recovered it on UMass 6-yard line.

UMass’ defense held strong after the turnover, forcing the Dukes to settle for a 20-yard field goal and a 3-0 lead. The defense was strong again, forcing a punt after Kyle Havens had a pass tipped at the line of scrimmage and picked off by JMU’s Jakarie Jackson on UMass’ following offensive possession.

On the third play of UMass’ third offensive possession, Nelson again fumbled the ball, but the defense didn’t have a chance to stop the Dukes as Jamaris Sanders, who forced and recovered the fumble, returned the ball 38 yards for a touchdown and a 10-0 lead.

“They were definitely trying to grab at the ball but I know I can protect the ball,” Nelson said.

The Minutemen scored on their next drive on a 16-yard run by Jon Hernandez at the start of the second quarter. The score cut the Dukes lead to three until JMU’s redshirt freshman quarterback, Justin Thorpe, took a quarterback keeper in from 21 yards out to bring the lead back to 10. Thorpe finished the game 8-of-13 for 120 yards passing and with 89 rushing yards on 20 carries.

Nelson (115 yards, one touchdown on 18 carries) redeemed himself three minutes, 25 seconds left in the third quarter, with a six-yard run into the end zone to bring UMass within three again at 17-14. The touchdown came off of a forced fumble by Tyler Holmes that was recovered by Eric Dickson on UMass’ 23-yard line. Havens then engineered a 12-play, 77-yard drive that resulted in Nelson’s score.

“I knew that my teammates were depending on me so I just wanted to come back in the game and try to go as hard as I can,” Nelson said.

Neither defense would break for the remainder of the game, especially UMass,’ which shutout the JMU offense after the 4:03 mark in the second quarter.

The Minutemen found themselves in decent field position with just under six mintues remaining in the game after a 30-yard punt by the Dukes’ Matt Goff gave UMass the ball at the JMU 46-yard line. The Dukes defense would force a three-and-out. Morris, facing a fourth-and-three elected to punt the ball back to James Madison and hope his three timeouts remaining and his defense could give the offense another chance.

“We thought about it. It was about fourth-and-four and we decided to punt it and pin them in deep with the three timeouts, the defense playing well,” Morris said of the decision to punt. “The idea was to pin them in deep and we did that.”

The defense did get the ball back to the offense, but later than Morris had hoped as JMU ran off 2:24 from the clock before punting the ball back to UMass. The Minutemen were unable to move into Armando Cuko’s field-goal range after starting the drive at their own 28-yard line with 1:20 left on the clock.

Jeffrey R. Larnard can be reached at jlarnard@dailycollegian.com.

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