The last time William and Mary was getting set to take on the Villanova Wildcats, things were very different. After having dropping their 2010 season openers, both teams were surging at 3-1. Villanova was the top-ranked team in the nation, the Tribe was at No. 7, and the game held serious implications both for the CAA and nationally.
Oh, and a different Mike was starting at quarterback for the College.
This year, both squads are desperately looking to right their ships in time to get back into national contention, and sophomore Mike Graham will be calling the signals for the Tribe.
The No. 11 College (2-2, 0-1 CAA) will try to shake off a 20-14 home loss — its first regular-season loss in 11 home games — to James Madison when it heads up to Pennsylvania to square off with Villanova. That game came on the heels of a frighteningly close win over Division II New Haven, and with its schedule getting no easier anytime soon — after Villanova, the College will play No. 6 Delaware in Newark, Del. and No. 7 New Hampshire at home — anything but a win over the 1-3 Wildcats could spell doom for the Tribe.
After the disappointing conference-opener against JMU, it’s hard to imagine the Tribe would overlook anyone at this point. But certainly on paper, Villanova shouldn’t pose much of a threat. Even after notching its first win of the year last week against Ivy League University of Pennsylvania, the team has been outscored by opponents at a clip of more than two-to-one. Like the Tribe, the Wildcats were blown out by an FBS opponent in Temple in their 2011 opener, but the slide didn’t stop. Villanova went on to take a 31-10 beatdown from Towson and lost to Monmouth, 20-9, before beating Penn.
In some respects, however, the Tribe’s JMU loss brought optimism, namely that the College’s passing game may actually be hitting its stride. Graham led the unit on two long touchdown drives in the second half, after the insertion of junior wideout Ryan Moody, who had missed the first three games of the year due to an ACL injury he suffered in April. Moody didn’t miss a beat, catching three balls for 82 yards in the second half.
“He had an outstanding year for us last year,” head coach Jimmye Laycock said of Moody. “We kind of took it a little slow, but as the game wore on, as he got confident, you could tell he was getting back to more his form.”
Almost as important, the threat Moody — a second-team all-CAA selection in 2010 — poses to secondaries is sure to draw attention to his side of the field, as it did against JMU. After a sleepy first half, senior wide receiver D.J. Mangas broke out in the second, finishing the game with six catches for 102 yards and a touchdown.
“I was very encouraged by his play,” Laycock said. “He did not make any major mistakes, by and large he got the ball to the right person at the right time. He gave the receivers the chance to make a play on the ball. You’re not all the time going to get wide open receivers running down the middle of the field, other times there are going to be people in one on one coverage.”
But just as the Tribe may have finally discovered its passing game under Graham, the Wildcats are looking to reinvent their aerial attack as well, as quarterback Christian Culicerto made his first career start against the Quakers, going 12 of 20 for 139 yards, a touchdown and an interception.
In other ways, though, the Dukes found and exploited some potential weaknesses of the College’s game. The Tribe’s defense looked as vulnerable as it had since its 40-3 shellacking in Charlottesville, unable to find an answer for JMU’s three-headed rushing attack of quarterback Justin Thorpe and tailbacks Dae-Quan Scott and Jauan Latney, who gouged the College for a combined 276 yards on 49 carries. Yes, junior linebacker Dante Cook got hurt on the Tribe’s first defensive series, but the unit can’t dwell on what could have been, as Cook has been ruled out for Villanova. Laycock said junior Brian Thompson will move from safety to outside linebacker to fill the void, and sophomore Jerome Couplin — who played well after Cook left against JMU, making six tackles, one for a loss — will take over in the secondary.
“Dante is very much of a playmaker, he’s dynamic,” Laycock said. “He comes after you and he can make some plays. We’re not that good that you can take a really, really good player off our team and say, ‘Don’t miss a beat.’ That’s going to make a difference.”
The last time the Tribe beat Villanova in Pennsylvania was back in 2000, when the College pulled out a 48-41 win in overtime. But Laycock knows that this Villanova team is different than the one he’s used to facing, a good thing for his squad given that the Tribe is 4-10 playing in Villanova Stadium.
“It’s a different Villanova team than what we’re used to seeing,” he said. “A lot of familiar faces that we’ve seen and played against the last couple of years aren’t there.”
But both Laycock and Mangas are well aware that playing on the road, and in the CAA, wins never come easily.
“Those guys play hard,” Mangas said. “Any time you’re on the road and in the conference, it’s a challenge. Any team in the CAA is going to bring their A-game. In the CAA, you’re going to get a tough game every week.”