In the first half of its 2008 season opener, the College of William and Mary dominated North Carolina State, holding the ACC program to 79 yards in 13 minutes, 24 seconds of first half possession.
However, a pair of unfortunate turnovers left the Tribe down 14-0 at halftime, a deficit that proved too large to overcome. It was a missed opportunity on the way to a 34-24 loss.
“I think we had a shot at that one, I really do,” Head Coach Jimmye Laycock said. “We were playing very well defensively and let up those turnovers and a couple things got out of hand.”
Another year brings another ACC opponent, and the no. 14 Tribe will have a chance to atone for last season’s loss when they take on Virginia Saturday in both teams’ 2009 season opener.
On the surface, the Cavaliers bear a strong resemblance to last year’s N.C. State squad, giving the College hope for an upset and their first win over an FBS opponent in 11 years.
“I think our players are very much aware of the challenge,” Laycock said. “They’ve worked extremely hard and are ready for this game.”
A victory in Charlottesville would be the first for the Tribe since a 41-37 win in 1986 during Laycock’s eighth year at the helm of the program.
Now, as he enters his 30th season in charge, Laycock’s chief task tomorrow will be defending against an offense that was in its infancy at the time of that earlier upset: the spread.
The Cavaliers are entering their first season employing the now-popular tactic, which spreads defenses by using three and four wide receiver sets, leading to uncertainty about the specific type of spread they will employ. The uncertainty is magnified by U.Va.’s ongoing quarterback battle, where a starter has yet to be announced between seniors Jameel Sewell and Vic Hall and junior Mark Verica.
“I don’t really know what their spread is yet,” Laycock said. “Their definition of the spread might be very different from other people’s definition. Until we start playing, you really can’t tell … but I’m sure they’re going to get the ball to different people, try to throw us off balance.”
Behind senior preseason All-American defensive end Adrian Tracy and a defense that ranked 5th in the CAA last year, the College will be ready.
“Our coaches have a strong and solid game plan for us to attack,” Tracy said. “Up front, we have to hit our gaps, apply pressure to the pass and the linebackers have to stay home and cover. In the spread offense, you try to spread it out, so we need to be able to fill up the gaps.”
The Tribe will also have to deal with the pressures of playing a major conference, in-state rival, as well as the noise and confusion of a hostile stadium.
“You can’t really simulate 61,000 people screaming at you and going crazy,” Tracy said. “This is my fourth big away game, and I’ve kind of adjusted to it. But I’m sure there will be some guys who, first game out there, will be nervous.”
Don’t expect the Tribe to play the role of cowed visitors. Four of their last five contests against FBS schools, while all losses, finished with margins of victory inside two scores. And as their effort against N.C. State demonstrated, the squad could be just a turnover or two away from springing a major upset.
“This isn’t a vacation,” Tracy said. “It’s a business trip.”
Keys to the game
Virginia employs the spread offense — the same attack that JMU used to put up 47 points against the College last season. The Cavaliers do not have a quarterback as dynamic as Rodney Landers, but the Tribe defense will need to tackle better and stay disciplined against a quick, shifty offense.
Chris Sutton and Derek Toon will both earn their first career starts on the offensive line. That unit has been erratic in preseason, but U.Va. and its raucous crowd of 61,000 will be an even tougher test. If quarterback R.J. Archer spends the entire game scrambling for his life, the College will have little chance.
The kicking game
Last year, kicker Brian Pate was rock solid for the College, drilling 13 of 16 field goal attempts. Virginia used a pair of kickers who combined to go 9 for 15. Tribe punter David Miller averaged 41 yards a punt, while the Cavaliers’ Jimmy Howell averaged 39. If this game is close, the difference in each of those statistics could play a decisive role.