Entering the final stretch of a year in which the William and Mary defense has saved the team’s season more than once, it was defensive breakdowns and miscues that doomed the Tribe Saturday and potentially extinguished its 2011 playoff hopes.
Despite their commitment to play every game as if it were a playoff game, the College fell at home to Towson 38-27, whose first-place standing in the CAA is the 2011 FCS surprise.
“Towson’s a really good team,” head coach Jimmye Laycock said. “They play hard, they play well. I expected us to play much better than that, defensively. We’re not really interested in getting into shootout games with this year’s team. We ended up getting into one.”
After the Tribe (4-4, 2-3 CAA) kicked a field goal on the game’s opening drive, Towson scored 21 unanswered points, finding the endzone on each of its first four possessions and going on to rack up 427 yards and average 6.9 per play.
“Towson had a lot to do with it,” Laycock said, “but we didn’t get off blocks real well, we didn’t tackle real well, we didn’t cover real well.”
The Tribe’s offense put together its most complete, balanced effort of the season. Sophomore quarterback Mike Graham, who had missed the last two games due to an illness, went 19 of 26 for 227 yards and two touchdowns, though his two interceptions were costly. Senior running back Jonathan Grimes, coming off his record-setting day against New Hampshire, had another big game, carrying 30 times for 140 yards and a touchdown to go with his two receptions for 37 yards.
“I thought [that], offensively, we played pretty well,” Laycock said. “I was a little surprised how well we were able to move the football. Mike Graham hung in there and did pretty well and Jon [Grimes] had another good game.”
But the College’s 373 yards of offense weren’t enough to keep pace with the Tigers, whose backfield duo of quarterback Grant Enders and tailback Terrance West helped gash the Tribe for 224 yards on the ground.
“We knew exactly what we were getting into,” junior safety Brian Thompson said. “They were going to run the power. We practiced well this week, we were ready for anything that they ran, it just didn’t turn out the way we wanted to.”
After Graham and Grimes engineered two long touchdown drives at the end of the first half — keeping the Tribe in the game, down 28-17 — the College’s defense made its first stop all day to open the third quarter, forcing a three-and-out and setting the offense up on the Towson 47 yard line after a punt.
But the offense couldn’t capitalize on the good field position, as the Tigers began to load the box and slow down the College’s running game, forcing a three-and-out of their own.
“The [offensive] line was really good,” Grimes said. “There were a lot of holes and it felt good on offense. Whenever we were stopped on offense, I felt like we were stopping ourselves. I just think it was a day for the offense to hold down the defense. They’ve always got our backs and today was a day for us to have their backs, we just didn’t capitalize.”
On its next drive, Towson needed some trickery to sustain a long touchdown drive, converting a fake punt on 4th and 7 at the Tribe 46 as Towson fullback Tyler Wharton was able to take a direct snap and run up the gut for the first down.
“We had a defense in there where we should’ve been able to react,” Laycock said. “You never know but it wasn’t something we were not prepared for.”
From there, Towson proceeded to march down the field, capping off a 14 play, 88 yard drive with a three yard touchdown pass from Enders to Wharton. Enders finished the game an impressive 15 of 21 for 203 yards, two touchdowns and a pick.
The third quarter ended with the Tigers up 35-17, but the Tribe threatening, at the Towson 23.
The College punched it in as Graham hit senior wideout D.J. Mangas for a three yard touchdown pass of his own, cutting the deficit to 11. Mangas would lead the Tribe with six catches for 65 yards and two touchdowns.
Still down two scores, the defense responded as junior linebacker Jabrel Mines intercepted a tipped Enders pass, setting Graham and company up at the Towson 39 with 11 minutes, 58 seconds remaining. Sophomore kicker Drake Kuhn then hit a 30 yard field goal, making it a one-possession game with eight minutes, eight seconds left on the clock.
But, once again, the Tribe defense couldn’t get off the field, allowing the Tigers to convert a third and fourth down as West consistently broke tackles and picked up yards after contact, leading Towson on a 13-play, 75-yard drive that ate up 6:04 and ended with a field goal, all but icing the game with just over two minutes left.
“Missed tackles, a play here and a play there,” Mines said. “It’s unacceptable, we knew what they were doing, we prepared all week for it. We knew they’d come out and run the power. All of us need to be accountable.”
With a 4-4 record and one of its wins coming against a Division II program, the Tribe will now most likely need to not only win all three of its remaining games, but get some help from other FCS schools to have any chance at a playoff berth. Laycock wouldn’t speculate on what the loss meant for his team’s postseason chances as it heads into a bye week before taking on 2-5 Rhode Island two Saturdays from now.
“I look at this game like we lost this game,” he said. “We’ll move on and get ready for Rhode Island.