Entering Saturday’s contest against no. 7 New Hampshire, there was no question that the Tribe could play with any opponent in the country — an 8-1 record and the top-ranked offense and defense in the CAA had sufficiently proven that. What remained to be seen was whether no. 5 William and Mary possessed the mental fortitude to take down top teams in close games. The squad folded earlier in the season against then-no. 2 Villanova and had not had a game decided by less than 12 points all year.
On Senior Day at Zable Stadium, the College got just the game it needed to test that question, absorbing all it could handle from a tough Wildcat squad and ultimately prevailing 20-17 on a late field goal from senior Brian Pate.
In a contest that felt every bit like a playoff game, the College proved that it could thrive under pressure, surviving a back and forth slugfest with one of the top teams in the nation.
“I thought we were pretty much relentless out there today,” Head Coach Jimmye Laycock said. “We knew going in that it was going to be a good one, and it could very well come down to the last team that had the ball. We played all four quarters very hard against a good team, and that’s what you have to do.”
From the opening moments, there seemed little doubt that the contest was destined for a dramatic ending, and the Tribe did not disappoint.
With the score deadlocked at 17-apiece, senior quarterback R.J. Archer began the game’s decisive drive at his own 28-yard line with 8:17 remaining in the fourth quarter. The senior was ice-cold under pressure, marching the College 52 yards down the field in 11 plays to set up the winning field goal.
“It was just another challenge,” Archer said. “We went down there and would have liked to get the touchdown, but Brian came in and got the field goal, which took a lot of nerve.”
Nerve was in ample supply for the Tribe all afternoon.
After jumping out to an early 10-3 lead, New Hampshire looked to be gaining momentum as the College’s offense stagnated.
Sophomore tailback Jonathan Grimes put the squad on his back, breaking loose for a 54-yard run through the left side of the Wildcat defense, and setting up the Tribe in New Hampshire territory.
“That sparked us,” Grimes said.
Junior tailback Courtland Marriner capped the drive with a five-yard rushing touchdown to even the score at 10.
New Hampshire came right back, storming into Tribe territory in only three plays before setting up a crucial fourth down and two at the College’s 34-yard line. There, senior defensive end Adrian Tracy burst through the line to bring down fullback Sean Jellison in the backfield, one of seven tackles and two sacks for the senior on the day.
The stop galvanized the Tribe, who would hold the Wildcats scoreless for over two quarters in the middle of the contest. The College’s defensive line neutralized a powerful New Hampshire rushing attack, holding the Wildcats to a mere 27 yards on the ground.
“It doesn’t really matter how fast you are when there’s a wall in front of you,” senior defensive tackle Sean Lissemore said.
Lissemore came up strong against the passing game as well. With the score still deadlocked at 10 midway through the third quarter, the senior intercepted quarterback R.J. Toman on a third-down play at the Wildcat 20.
Three plays later, the Tribe capitalized on the short field to score a crucial, go-ahead touchdown, as Archer found junior wide receiver Chase Hill on a fade route in the corner of the end zone.
New Hampshire would even the score midway through the fourth quarter. On a fourth and seven at the Tribe 35, Toman swung a short pass to wide receiver Joey Orlando, who outsprinted his defender to the end zone. The score forced the College to recover mentally after coming up short on the opportunity to seal the game.
“We knew it was going to be a fight and were in it for the long haul,” Lissemore said. “Regardless of what happened, we were ready to go.”
At that point, it was up to Archer and the offense, and the senior responded with the first game-winning fourth-quarter drive of his career.
After Hill was unable to bring in his second touchdown of the day on a third-down play from the New Hampshire 20, Pate came on with the game on the line.
The senior’s kick split the uprights with 2:54 remaining, and the defense was called for one final stand. New Hampshire was unable to pick up a first down after four plays, and the game came to a close with Archer taking a knee at the New Hampshire 15.
The victory was a crucial step toward home field advantage and a potential FCS seed for the College. But it left the Tribe with bigger goals in mind, as the regular season-finale against no. 4 Richmond looms.
“We’re not satisfied as a whole,” Tracy said. “There’s something still out there that we want; we’re still hungry and still striving for it, working hard week in and week out. That attitude that we’ve taken the whole season is what’s gotten us this far. Just not being satisfied.”
A win against the Spiders would mark the first time in College history that the program accumulated 10 wins in the regular season.