Jake Phillips stared back into the camera light.
The College of William and Mary’s senior quarterback had just completed one of the most frustrating games of his career, a six-interception performance in an overtime loss to the University of Richmond. He didn’t know at the time, but it would be his final collegiate game, as the defeat would ultimately keep the Tribe out of the FCS playoffs. After the game, he faced the unenviable task of answering the questions of a roomful of newspaper reporters and television cameramen.
“It was tough in the first half,” Phillips said.
“At halftime we said, ‘we’re just going to keep throwing punches until the last minute.’”
It was a fitting way for the quarterback to describe his final game. After all, Phillips has had to roll with more than a few punches throughout his four-year career.
He replaced legend Lang Campbell ’04 when he took over the starting quarterback position during his redshirt freshman season, bringing the Tribe within two one-point losses of the playoffs. His sophomore season was arguably his hardest, as he completed fewer than 50 percent of his passes while sharing starting duties with then-junior Mike Potts during the College’s 3-8 season.
He enjoyed his best statistical year in 2007 as a junior tallying 19 touchdowns and just seven interceptions, while throwing for over 250 yards per game. The Tribe didn’t share his success, however, and defensive woes (39 points allowed per game) contributed to a 4-7 finish.
“He is someone who has really persevered,” Head Coach Jimmye Laycock said of Phillips prior to the Richmond game. “He came here used to winning, and he’s dealt with some frustrating things that were not his fault.
“He’s pushed himself, and really pushed other people in a positive way,” Laycock said. “He set the example, and he’s a big reason why we’ve been able to get over the hump this year.”
Under Phillips’ guidance this season, the Tribe turned in its first winning campaign (7-4, 5-3 CAA) since 2004. Prior to the Richmond loss, he had thrown for 21 touchdowns and 11 interceptions in nine games.
And then, against the Spiders, it seemed like all of Phillips’ work over the past four years to get his team to the playoffs had been thrown out the window. Just about everything went wrong for him: he was pressured, he had miscommunications with his receivers, and he completed more passes to Richmond defenders (four) than to his own guys (three) in the first half. At halftime, Laycock, who had never thought about benching Phillips for the second half, offered up some advice.
“You ain’t going to play any worse,” the former quarterback told his player. “Just get after it and keep going.”
That’s exactly what Phillips did, and for the next 30 minutes he led his team back. He threw passes on the run, off his back foot and while jumping in the air, making enough plays to keep his team in the game, and finally diving over his offensive line Walter Payton-style for the game-tying, one-yard touchdown run.
Even more impressive than Phillips’ second-half performance was that, despite all his struggles, the Tribe never quit. Playing with their backs against the wall the entire game, the members of the team’s “Green Swarm” defense lived up to their preseason nickname, holding the Spiders to zero points in the third and fourth quarters. And, of course, no play was bigger for the Tribe than senior cornerback Derek Cox’s 80-yard punt return touchdown with three minutes to go, bringing the College within one score.
What the game demonstrated more than anything else was that through four years of disappointing results, the team had learned how to fight back. And while it’s easy for that fact to be forgotten in light of the disappointing end — junior kicker Brian Pate’s kick being blocked in overtime and Richmond subsequent connection on a 37-yard game winner — there is perhaps no more fitting tribute to Phillips and the other members of the senior class who brought their team to this point than the resolve and fight they showed that Saturday afternoon.
So it came as no surprise that Phillips, one of the team’s season-long leaders, came out to meet reporters after the game. He didn’t duck any questions, or make excuses for his first-half struggles. Instead, he offered up what it meant to him to be a member of this years squad.
“I’m just so proud to be a part of a team that’s fought through that adversity all year,” he said.
Given how far the Tribe came back, both against Richmond and over the past four years, he has an awful lot to be proud of.
E-mail Jeff Dooley at [email protected]