HARRISONBURG, Va. | Mickey Matthews doesn’t believe teams are just destined to win. Not with all the hours of work that go into preparing for every practice and every game.
The coach at James Madison, the top-ranked team in the Football Championship Subdivision, will even offer explanations for how his Dukes managed improbable comeback victories against former No. 1 Appalachian State and highly ranked Richmond earlier this season.
But mention the Dukes’ last-play, Hail Mary victory at Villanova, and Matthews bursts into hearty laughter. Sometimes plausible explanations don’t cover the implausible.
“We work on those plays like everyone does,” he said of the one with 4.3 seconds left at Villanova on a windy, rainy night last month. With the ball on the Villanova 35-yard line, Dukes quarterback Rodney Landers stepped up to avoid pressure and lofted a pass into the end zone, where one of at least four waiting Wildcats defenders batted it away - right to JMU wide receiver Bosco Williams.
James Madison wins, 23-19.
Matthews wore a stunned look as he walked off the field. James Madison (8-1) had practiced the play two days earlier, but not converted, and now the coach who likes to formulate in his head what he will say to his team after a game was forced to do some mental scrambling.
Before the play, he admitted, he was working on a “keep your chins up” message.
“I was dang sure I would tell the guys how proud I was that we had played poorly but we had got the game back with a chance to win, that we’d played hard in the rain on the road, and we weren’t playing our best but we hung in there with them, and that we still had a chance to win the national championship,” Matthews said. “All of sudden, we win the game.”
Matthews could have just gone to his archives from earlier in the year for his words.
He could have used the speech from after the Dukes erased a 21-0 halftime deficit against Appalachian State, the two-time defending national champions, and pulled out a 35-32 victory.
Or the one from when they drove 63 yards against one of the best defenses in the FCS for a touchdown and tying two-point conversion with 59 seconds left at Richmond, held the Spiders on defense and won 38-31 on Scotty McGee’s 69-yard punt return touchdown with one second left.
“I don’t know if you really know about your football team until they get behind in a situation like that because you don’t know how they’re going to react,” Matthews said.
“When you do something like that, obviously, our guys reacted very well. It’s why we think we’re going to win it. We believe very strongly that we’re going to win games late.”