After nearly 3 hours and 13 minutes of momentum shifts, questionable calls and lead changes, Saturday’s contest between William and Mary and No. 4 James Madison came down to one final play — and one final play call.
After matching a JMU touchdown in the second overtime period, head coach Jimmye Laycock elected to forgo the extra point – thereby eliminating the possibility of a third overtime — and instead to put his offense back on the field for a two-point conversion attempt, the game hanging in the balance.
Sophomore quarterback Raphael Ortiz dropped back, scrambled around in the backfield, and let go on a ball intended for sophomore wide receiver Tre McBride in the back of the end zone. The pass fell incomplete, and suddenly, the College (2-5, 1-3 CAA) began to digest a heartbreaking 27-26 double overtime loss to JMU (5-1, 3-0 CAA) in Harrisonburg, Va.
“We practice that every week, multiple times every week,” Ortiz said of the final play. “They were in zone coverage, so it was tough to fit it in certain windows. I tried moving around the pocket a little bit just so that maybe one of the DBs would shift and leave one of our three options open … I saw Tre in the area and I saw our tight end coming across … I just put it up there for the both of them to get it.”
While the College easily could have converted an extra point to send the game to a third overtime, Laycock stood by the decision to go for it.
“It was a situation where we had gone back and forth in the overtime and our defense had been out there so much; if we kicked the extra point, they were going to have to go back out there again and play defense and I just kind of [had a] gut feeling,” Laycock said.
Even before the final overtime period, the contest featured a series of significant momentum shifts. The College started well and enjoyed a 14-0 lead until midway through the second quarter, when the Dukes rattled off 17 straight of their own to take the lead. Junior kicker Drake Kuhn knotted a 39-yard field goal with 7:57 left in the last quarter to tie the game at 17 and eventually send it into overtime.
The Tribe had a chance to avoid overtime and walk away from Harrisonburg with a win in regulation, but Kuhn was unable to connect from 31 yards as time expired.
“I thought he would make that field goal. I didn’t have any reservations whatsoever, especially when we got that first down there; I thought he would make it, but he didn’t,” Laycock said.
Laycock indicated after the game that he felt that Kuhn, who went 2 for 4 on the evening, was “less than 100 percent.”
Regardless of the final result, the College played admirably against one of the best teams in the FCS realm.
Ortiz went 14 of 23 for 177 yards, two passing touchdowns and a rushing touchdown, a solid day for the first-year starter. Ortiz’s favorite target, McBride, turned in another impressive performance; he nabbed seven receptions for 79 yards and two touchdowns.
McBride was also the recipient of a questionable penalty in the first overtime period. The sophomore wideout corralled a 13-yard touchdown reception in the back of the endzone, but the play was called back to offensive interference, resulting in a 38-yard field goal by Kuhn.
With redshirt sophomore tailback Keith McBride sidelined, the College split carries between three backs Saturday. Sophomore running back Darnell Laws led the group with 61 yards on 17 carries, while Ortiz added 54 and redshirt freshman Mikal Abdul-Saboor rushed for 50 yards on 16 attempts.
Laycock thought the Tribe’s ground game was instrumental in the squad’s second half performance.
“We got things going, made a couple of runs, we started running the football a little better and we started stringing together some runs and once we started stringing together some runs, we started moving it,” Laycock said.
Defensively, the Tribe held James Madison quarterback Justin Thorpe and the Dukes offense in check throughout the game. Thorpe, a dangerous dual threat quarterback, recorded a game-high 110 rushing yards on 21 carries, but managed just 157 yards and one touchdown through the air.
In particular, sophomore defensive lineman Stephen Sinnott forced a Thorpe fumble, which senior cornerback B.W. Webb promptly recovered at the JMU 27-yard line. Later in the contest, junior safety Jerome Couplin made a beautiful, leaping interception in the first quarter, likely saving a JMU scoring opportunity.
Perhaps the most important Tribe defensive play of the evening came in the first overtime period. On 3rd and goal from the 2-yard line, JMU tailback Dae’Quan Scott nearly ended the game with a touchdown score before senior linebacker Dante Cook swooped in and halted Scott at the 1-yard line, forcing a field goal and extending the game. Cook, who missed the first three games of the season due to injury, recorded four tackles total.
While the Tribe failed to pull off the upset against the Dukes, Laycock was quick to point out the positives and was proud of his team’s effort.
“Heck of a game. Both teams played pretty well, I thought,” Laycock said. “Either team could have won it in certain situations. I certainly like to think that we could have won it, but we didn’t. We put ourselves in a great position; we played hard; we made a lot of plays. … To come up and play the No. 4 team in the nation at their place … for our guys to battle like they did, I think they deserve a heck of a lot of credit.”