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Ground game dominates in UMass’ loss to JMU

footBSenior running back Tony Nelson didn’t start the final home game of his career on the right foot. Nelson, who fumbled on the first offensive play from scrimmage and again later in the first quarter, found himself once again surrendering carries to redshirt sophomore Jon Hernandez.

In the second half, though, Nelson returned to form, finishing the day with 18 rushes for 115 yards. Such numbers were par for the course on a rain-soaked Saturday afternoon that ended with three players gaining over 100 yards rushing and virtually no offense through the air.

Unfortunately for the Massachusetts football team (5-5, 3-4 Colonial Athletic Association), two of those players were James Madison quarterback Justin Thorpe and running back Scott Noble as the Dukes’ (5-5, 3-4 CAA) ground game could not be stopped en route to a 17-14 loss by UMass.

Heavy rains were already pounding onto the turf at McGuirk Alumni Stadium by kickoff as each team’s running game was called to carry their respective offenses.

UMass averaged more per rush (4.7) than JMU (4.1) on the day, but were hampered by early turnovers and failed to produce a sustained drive. The Minutemen rushed 34 times for 159 yards rushing. Meanwhile, the Dukes consistently pounded the ball for the entire game, running it 52 times for 212 yards.

The rainy conditions put a stopper on any attempts to establish a consistent passing game. With the first quarter seeing only two completed passes, quarterbacks Kyle Havens and Thorpe combined for 18 completions and 208 passing yards.

In the end, all of the factors surrounding Saturday’s game played into the Dukes’ hands. JMU, which leads the conference in rushing attempts, utilizes three different running backs and Thorpe, who is primarily a running threat, to pound the ball. On the season, the Dukes have averaged 44 rushes per game, compared to 17.6 passing attempts per game.

UMass, meanwhile, is in the middle of the pack in the CAA in terms of rushing, averaging 37 rushes per game.

In addition to experience with run heavy offense, the Dukes have also spent more time playing in the rain.

“All season we’ve been playing in the rain, so we’re kind of used to it,” Thorpe said. “Unlike most teams, we practice outside in full equipment all week, so it really prepares us for these games and it shows.”

While the Minutemen were limited in terms of their ability to utilize the passing game, UMass coach Kevin Morris said that his team wasn’t hampered by having to lean on the run, even when playing much of the game with a deficit.

“Well we weren’t that far behind. The running game kept us right in it, we were running the ball well at those points in time,” Morris said.

Dukes coach Mickey Matthews seconded Morris’ thoughts on UMass running attack, giving credit to Nelson.

“I knew we’d struggle to tackle [Nelson],” Matthews said. “He’s a heck of a back. He’s the best back in the league and we struggle to tackle him because he’s a good player.”

Playing from behind

While JMU never had a significant edge in terms of offensive performance, UMass failed to produce a clean drive early on in the game due to turnovers, forcing the Minutemen to spend almost the entirety of the game playing from behind.

According to Morris, his team’s loss was not a result of a lack of production in the rainy conditions, but the team’s early turnover issues.

“Tony rushed for over 100 [yards] so I don’t think the conditions were so much of a factor as much as it was just inconsistent play,” Morris said.

Nelson’s fumble on the first play from scrimmage was just the beginning of UMass’ turnover woes. On the ensuing drive, Kyle Havens’ pass was tipped at the line of scrimmage and intercepted by the Dukes’ Jackarie Jackson. Then, on the third drive for the Minutemen, Nelson was stripped once again. Jamaris Sanders forced and recovered the fumble and ran 38 yards for the score, putting UMass in a 10-0 hole.

“It’s a typical CAA football game. If you turn the ball over, you’re going to struggle winning,” Morris said.

Nick O’Malley can be reached at nomalley@student.umass.edu.

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