It happened neatly, in one smooth play — five years of frustration and one heartbreaking playoff loss purged, at least temporarily, with a backbreaking defensive touchdown that buried the Tribe’s most recent and frequent tormenter under an insurmountable first half deficit. As sophomore linebacker Dante Cook closed on the ball, took possession and raced the length of the field into the end zone, No. 7 William and Mary (4-1, 2-1 CAA) could finally earn a bit of the respect that had eluded it for the past several seasons.
Cook’s pick-six, with five minutes remaining in the second quarter, signaled the inevitability of the College’s 31-24 triumph over No. 1 Villanova, giving the Tribe a 21-0 lead it would not relinquish. It handed the squad its third win over a top-ranked team in the last six seasons. But, most critically, it announced the Tribe’s legitimacy as a national contender in 2010, proving that the success of 2009 was no fluke and that the squad’s shaky start to the season was an aberration.
“I thought we played our best game of the season,” Head Coach Jimmye Laycock said. “This league is so good, you don’t know which teams are going to be playoff teams or compete for a championship, but this was a big challenge for us today.”
The College survived that test with a suffocating defensive intensity not seen in its previous four contests, as well as an efficient offense that notched points on two of its first three possessions. Villanova was held to only 15 first quarter yards, while junior tailback Jonathan Grimes scored the first of his three touchdowns 13 minutes, 25 seconds into the game. Six and a half minutes later, after another defensive stop, Grimes capped a second drive with a touchdown run, scoring from four yards out to make it 14-0.
As it failed to do earlier in the season, it was the defense that set the standard, keeping the Wildcats’ vaunted offense, which was missing playmaking wideout Matt Szczur, off the scoreboard until just seconds remained in the first half.
“We wanted to set the tone early this week,” Cook said. “[Villanova] is a team that likes to get out and run from the front, and we knew that. We’re a team that has a reputation for being a second half team, especially defensively, so we really wanted to come out and send a message early. We were ready.”
That message was sent clearly with Cook’s interception return late in the second quarter. With Villanova facing a fourth down and two at the Tribe 16-yard line, quarterback Chris Whitney lofted a pass intended for tailback Aaron Ball that slightly overflew its target. Cook was waiting, and, 84 yards later, he dove into the end zone for his second defensive touchdown in two weeks.
The Wildcats would not give in, and managed 21 second-half points to keep the scoreline close, but it would be too little, much too late.
“We had a good game plan going in against these guys,” Cook said. “Sometimes we kind of outcoached ourselves, and this week we just had a simple and effective game plan and guys made plays.”
Villanova was held to only 62 yards rushing on the afternoon, markedly below its season average of 186.2 yards per game.
“If you stop the run like that, it definitely starts to take a toll [on them],” senior defensive tackle Mike Stover said. “Especially their offensive line, it felt like they slowed down a little bit when we were still rolling.”
Meanwhile, the offense plugged along and scored just enough to keep the Wildcats out of it. Junior quarterback Mike Paulus, starting in place of injured senior Mike Callahan, completed 20 of 28 passes for 211 yards, while also tossing a pair of interceptions. Grimes, questionable for the contest due to injuries suffered two weeks ago at Old Dominion, tallied 86 yards on 21 carries in addition to his three scores.
“It was just what we wanted to do. We had a lot of drives that lasted five or six minutes,” Paulus said.
The last of those Grimes touchdowns came with seven minutes, 13 seconds remaining in the third quarter, and put the College up 28-3. Villanova added three touchdowns afterward, including one on a 47-yard touchdown pass on fourth and 30, but never seriously threatened the Tribe. Grimes recovered a desperate onside kick with just over two minutes to play, and that would seal the game.
The win left the Tribe in the thick of the playoff race with a host of challenges awaiting. No. 5 Delaware comes to town Oct. 23, while road trips to No. 3 James Madison, No. 14 New Hampshire and ACC North Carolina await.
But at least for the meantime, the College can appreciate its first win over Villanova since 2005, a streak that has seen it drop games at the highest stakes to its conference rival.
“It’s exhilarating,” Cook said. “They’re a team we had to beat this week, and if it was anybody we would have been happy. But of course it was Villanova, and a bitter rivalry, so it was good to get this win.”