October 24, 2012
The nation's most productive quarterback and two former backups command center stage as the state's top Football Championship Subdivision programs wind toward their winter finales.
James Madison's Michael Birdsong is the young upstart, a true freshman who, after a remarkable relief stint Saturday, has supplanted fifth-year senior Justin Thorpe atop the Dukes' depth chart. It is, to say the least, a bold and curious move for a top-10 team.
Then there's Richmond's Michael Strauss, thrust into the starting role after John Laub sustained a season-ending broken ankle two weeks ago. All Strauss did in his inaugural start was throw for 271 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions.
The marquee's largest letters are reserved for Old Dominion's Taylor Heinicke, a revelation last year as a rookie, off the charts this. For all of coordinator Brian Scott's imaginative schemes, it's Heinicke who brings them to life.
Quality teams and compelling subplots are standard fare among Virginia's FCS schools, and this season they emerge as the state's Bowl Subdivision programs, Virginia and Virginia Tech, endure harrowing times.
So absent an affinity for Hitchcock or Stephen King, in-state fans will find the most gripping stories among these Colonial Athletic Association rivals.
JMU (6-2, 3-1 CAA) was ranked No. 2 nationally entering last week's contest at Richmond, but coach Mickey Matthews was far from content. The Dukes had struggled to score in recent victories over William and Mary and Towson, and when they fell behind the Spiders 28-10 Saturday, he benched Thorpe for Birdsong.
"I thought he was the best quarterback prospect in the state (last year)," Matthews said of Birdsong, a 6-foot-4 graduate of Matoaca High. "He's oblivious to the rush. We noticed that in scrimmages. He really finds open receivers where no one else can because of his size and his competitiveness."
In little more than a quarter against Richmond, Birdsong passed for 159 yards and a touchdown, rushed for 73 yards and a score, and nearly orchestrated an improbable win. The Spiders prevailed, 35-29.
"For whatever the reason, it really gave our whole football team a spark," Matthews said of the quarterback switch. "Almost immediately, we were a different team."
Believing Birdsong can sustain that spark, Matthews named him the starter for the ninth-ranked Dukes' game Saturday against Georgia State.
The upset of JMU elevated Richmond (5-3, 3-2) into the rankings at No. 25 and, most important, into the playoff discussion. That's a remarkable reversal for the Spiders, who last season went 0-8 in the CAA under interim coach Wayne Lineburg.
But new coach Danny Rocco has a message for his team, idle this week before a Nov. 3 date with CAA bottom feeder Rhode Island.
"If we don't continue to improve," he said, "we won't be in that (playoff) conversation very long."
A transfer from the University of Virginia, Strauss will be at the front line of any Richmond progress. He replaced Laub during a 44-40 loss at New Hampshire, throwing a fourth-quarter touchdown pass, and completed 27-of-43 against JMU, connecting with tight end Kevin Finney for three scores inside the 10-yard line.
With subsequent games against Delaware and William and Mary, the Spiders could well close on a four-game winning streak.
ODU opened the season with a five-game run, only to faceplant, at home, against Villanova. The Monarchs lost 38-14, their most one-sided defeat since reviving football in 2009.
Not exactly the ideal preparation for last Saturday's contest at defending CAA champion Towson.
"There was a lot of soul-searching, if you will, this past week," ODU coach Bobby Wilder said. "I challenged our players to take a long look at themselves. I did myself as the head coach, all the assistants, and the kids really turned it around last Tuesday morning (with a players-only meeting).
"They got some things hashed out in terms of everybody's approach, everybody's attitude and we went up to Towson, and I thought we were a different football team in terms of the way we were before the game in the locker room, on the sideline, everybody's approach was just much different."
The sixth-ranked Monarchs bested the Tigers 31-20. Heinicke threw for a pedestrian, by his standards, 264 yards, but he still leads the FCS in passing yards at 397.7 per game.
"Offensively, they're magical," Delaware coach K.C. Keeler said as his No. 20 Blue Hens prepared for Saturday's nationally televised (NBC Sports Network) game at ODU. "The things (Heinicke) does in terms of improvisation (are) amazing."
ODU (6-1, 3-1) won at Richmond last month 45-37 and closes the regular season Nov. 17 at JMU. With all due respect to the Hokies and Cavaliers, it may be the state's game of the year.