In some ways, a loss is a loss. None of the advancements William and Mary made as a team against James Madison on Saturday night are going to change that tally mark in the right column. No matter how much brighter the rest of the season looks because of the way they played, the Tribe isn’t going to get to the promised land without consistently outperforming its opponents. And if the team is still making bonehead mistakes — like botching field goal snaps and fumbling deep in its own territory — in November, you can forget about football games past.
After playing one obviously stronger opponent and two weaker ones, the College finally got a crack at a team that was supposed to be on its level. If the Tribe wanted to give fans serious hope of a playoff run, it needed to prove it could win games like that. But just because the College lost, it doesn’t mean it can’t. Is it disappointing that Laycock’s squad couldn’t pull out a winnable game? Yes, without question. But the outlook for the remainder of the Tribe’s season looks better because of the advancements made on Saturday.
It all starts with Michael Graham, the sophomore who started at quarterback for the first time in his career. In the beginning, Graham kept up his narrative from the New Haven game, during which he showed he’s a player with the tools to successfully manage an offense and just needs to get more comfortable in the role. Throughout the first three games, Graham turned in decent performances as it became more and more clear that senior Mike Paulus isn’t the quarterback he once was.
Graham needed the opportunity to run a more open offense in order to show that he’s the real deal. He got that chance when junior wide receiver Ryan Moody came into the game into the second half. Apart from having 82 receiving yards himself, Moody’s presence freed up other options for Graham, who looked more comfortable throwing down the field after it had been spread out. In particular, senior wide receiver D.J. Mangas benefitted, nabbing six catches for 102 yards and a touchdown.
Graham isn’t likely to ever drop your jaw behind center. He’s not able to run the offense on his talents alone, and he needs a reliable system around him to be effective. But he did show flashes of brilliance, like on his 10 yard touchdown throw to senior tight end Alex Gottlieb, a throw he made from his back foot and with a man bearing down on him.
Graham will do just fine if his receivers can be more consistent in grabbing catchable balls and if the offensive line can do enough to keep him from running for his life. If the defense plays up to its potential, the offense doesn’t have to dazzle, it just has to be average.
That defense should still leave Tribe fans confident. Yes, the Dukes’s rushing attack was a little more effective than we would have liked to see, but it’s a skilled attack and the Tribe was missing junior linebacker Dante Cook for all but the first few plays. The secondary can’t afford to make mistakes like the one that gave the Dukes an easy 52-yard touchdown going forward, but the unit’s focus was on the rushing attack, not a passing game that only attempted four throws all night.
The Tribe should be much more comfortable with their game on Saturday than with last week’s performance against New Haven. A strong conference opponent shows more about the makeup of this team than a Division II team ever could. Trying to be “1-0 every week,” as junior linebacker Jabrel Mines put it, may be admirable, but the fact of the matter is that the Tribe needs to pay attention to what hasn’t worked thus far in order to figure out what will. Last week’s win was uncomfortable and caused more questions than it answered. Given what they’ve learned from Saturday, Tribe fans should be much more comfortable with 2-2 this week than with 2-1 last week.