This week sees the Tribe riding high at 3-1 in the CAA and no. 16 nationally. However, the squad will enter the home stretch of its season missing two crucial leaders and playmakers. For the second straight week, senior linebacker Josh Rutter will be out as the College takes on Towson University this Saturday. He will be joined on the sideline by senior wide receiver Elliott Mack.
Both of these guys are serious losses for a team in the midst of its best play since 2004, both are captains and their contributions both on and off the field are a large part of the reason the Tribe is sitting in the midst of the playoff race.
Redshirt freshman Jake Trantin will again step in to take Rutter’s place as he did impressively against Rhode Island, while sophomore Terreon Conyers will likely see an increased role in Mack’s absence.
“It’s tough, [Rutter’s] a leader out there, but Trantin did a great job [against Rhode Island],” junior safety Robert Livingston said. “He had to make a lot of [defensive] calls and he did well. And Josh has been there with him every step of the way, even now he’s out there on crutches at practice, he’s still hands on. A lot of people get hurt and think ‘Why me?’ but that’s not Josh.”
Rutter’s absence was evident in this past week’s first half as the Tribe looked extremely flat defensively and was unable to stop Rhode Island on third down, allowing the Rams to control the ball for over 20 of 30 first half minutes.
However, Trantin is turning into one of the team’s top playmakers and tallied a crucial interception and a game-high 13 tackles Saturday. The redshirt-freshman has been everywhere all season, making tackles, pressuring the quarterback and defending passes.
Mack will be more difficult to replace. Expect the College to ride freshman tailback Jonathan Grimes heavily this week and junior tight end Rob Varno to see increased looks in the passing game.
“I think we’re going to keep going with what we finished with against Rhode Island and use our running attack,” junior lineman Keith Hill said. “Getting the ball in Jonathan Grimes’ hands is crucial. We know how important this road game is to solidify a winning season.”
Overall, while the loss of these two leaders cannot be overstated, the injuries come at the best possible time for the Tribe as its next two contests come against lesser CAA teams, Towson and Northeastern. While neither is an easy game, and if the College doesn’t play its best, it will have no shot of winning. If Mack or Rutter were to miss either the JMU or Richmond games, the Tribe will have little shot at the postseason. It will be difficult, but the College will have to power through its next two contests and hope to be fully healthy heading into its big matchup against current no. 1 JMU in Harrisonburg Nov. 15.
Despite recent injuries, the Tribe locker room is upbeat after three straight CAA wins.
“In my three years here, this is the highest the confidence level has been,” Hill said. “Everybody is playing well and doing what we need to do to get the win. The locker room on game days is exciting. I don’t think there’s one person in there who is not mentally focused and prepared and ready for the task at hand.”
That outlook has carried over onto the field as well.
“Everyone knows what they have to do and they don’t want to let the person to their left or to their right down,” Livingston said. “Everyone has taken on a personal responsibility of having to step up their game that much more.”
That confidence will be needed against a solid Towson team that can air the ball out with consistency.
“[Towson senior quarterback Sean] Schaefer is as good as any you’ll see,” Head Coach Jimmye Laycock said. “He’s experienced, he’s tough and he can make all the throws and will put pressure on our defense.”
Expect the College to come out with somewhat of a more reserved game plan defensively after getting burned big time on short passing routes against Rhode Island.