Relief was the operative word for Tribe Head Coach Jimmye Laycock following his squad’s 27-15 defeat of Norfolk State Saturday night. The no. 5 College had easily handled the Spartans on the road to improve its record to 3-0, while emerging from the opening, non-conference portion of its schedule relatively injury free.
Overall, not much more could have gone right for the Tribe in non-conference play. The squad began with a thorough 26-14 destruction of Virginia, then easily took care of business against a pair of overmatched, lower-conference programs. The College is off to its best start since 1998.
But now, it’s time to forget all that. It’s time for the real season to begin.
Starting Saturday against Delaware, the Tribe will embark on its most difficult CAA schedule in years. Four of the College’s remaining eight games will come against teams ranked in the top seven in the nation, punctuated by a climactic, final weekend matchup against no. 1 Richmond.
“It was tough last year, and it will be tough this year. There are a lot of good teams, and we jump into it with both feet,” Laycock said. “I’m happy to be pretty injury free, and I’m happy to be 3-0, too. But it’s going to be a challenge every week, and we’d better get ready.”
While the Tribe’s opening upset over U.Va. was a monumental win for the program, there is little doubt that an FCS playoff bid is what matters most behind the doors of the Laycock Center. To gain one of those 16 spots, the College will have to emerge from its conference schedule with a record of at least 8-3 overall, or 5-3 in CAA play.
It won’t be easy. A week after hosting a strong Delaware program, the Tribe travels to no. 2 Villanova in what will be the first nationally televised regular season game in CAA history. The College will then take on Northeastern in Boston, before no. 7 James Madison comes to Zable Stadium on homecoming. Games against no. 6 New Hampshire and the top-ranked Spiders also remain.
“The rest of the games are conference games, and its do or die,” senior quarterback R.J. Archer said. “We are playing every game like it’s the championship.”
Luckily for Archer, the Tribe is showing very few weaknesses on the eve of their CAA opener. The College has been dominant in the opening quarter, outscoring opponents 37-7 while racking up a definitive 31:14 to 13:46 advantage in ball possession.
A powerful ground game has averaged 175 yards per game, compared to a mere 79 by opponents. A potent defense pitched two straight second-half shutouts to start the season and allowed only 15 garbage time points late in the fourth quarter against Norfolk State.
Some issues do exist. Despite looking sharp Saturday, Archer is currently slowed by an injured ankle that called into question his availability against the Spartans. A young offensive line has failed to provide steady protection for the quarterback, while struggling to control the line of scrimmage for the ground game.
Although steady a year ago, senior kicker Brian Pate has struggled this season, connecting on 8 of 13 field goal attempts while going only 3 for 9 from beyond 30 yards. Those are crucial points that the College cannot afford to sacrifice against tough CAA opponents.
“We have developed an ability to play very well at times, but I still don’t think we’ve got the consistency that we’re going to need as we get into league play,” Laycock said.
While unquestionably one of the strongest programs in the FCS, nothing is guaranteed this year in a tough division, and the College will need to forget its early success to mount a strong CAA run.
Last season, the Tribe sat at 7-2, one win short of a playoff bid, entering their final two contests against then-no. 1 James Madison and eventual national champion Richmond. The squad lost both games and watched the postseason at home.
This year, they are determined not to do the same.
“I think I’d be hard pressed to tell some of our fans that [the win over U.Va.] doesn’t matter, but that’s our approach,” Laycock said. “We moved on immediately after the Virginia game to Central Connecticut, and our players have done a great job of concentrating on each game every week.”
“We need to take control of our own destiny,” he said.