The tune-up game has become a necessary component for big-time programs — 40 minutes to build chemistry and confidence against Football Championship Series programs before facing real competition. It has also become a rite of passage for William and Mary athletes — except in the reverse. The game is an opportunity for immortality. Saturday’s game against West Virginia marks the fifth time in six years the College has begun its season against a team from a Bowl Championship Series conference.
Even though the College enters tomorrow’s matchup in Morgantown as a 32-point underdog, don’t count out the Tribe, which outplayed Maryland in a close loss last season and is just four years removed from its upset over Virginia in Charlottesville. That said, the Tribe will likely have to fill up the scoreboard to compete with the Mountaineers’ air-raid spread offense. The challenge grows steeper, as the College’s offense will start off the season short-handed.
Both teams enter the season with uncertainty at the quarterback position. Head coach Jimmye Laycock announced Monday that senior Michael Graham will start against West Virginia as redshirt freshman Christian Brumbaugh takes the backup slot. Junior Raphael Ortiz, who was the team’s presumptive starting quarterback heading into the offseason, continues to recover from shoulder surgery after sustaining an injury late last year. Senior Brent Caprio, 7-time starter over the past two years, is also sidelined with an injury after last season’s loss to New Hampshire.
The quarterback uncertainty at the College must look familiar to those in Morgantown. After losing quarterback Geno Smith to the second round of the National Football League draft last year, head coach Dana Holgorsen revamped his offensive personnel over the season with blue-chip transfers. Clint Trickett, a transfer from Florida State, is the favorite to take the first Mountaineer snap at Milan Puskar Stadium. However, Holgorsen has not officially announced his starter. Paul Millard, Geno Smith’s backup for the last two seasons, is also a strong contender for the starting role. Holgorsen also added key running backs Dreamius Smith and Charles Sims — both are also transfers.
If Laycock’s defense can dull the Mountaineers’ high-octane, hurry-up offense by exploiting the relative inexperience of its playmakers, the College will stand a chance of snagging an earth-shattering upset. Senior safety and captain Jerome Couplin III, who turns 22 on game day, leads a relatively inexperienced secondary that will try to hamper Holgorsen’s vaunted passing attack — a tough task against an offense that averaged 39.5 points and 502 yards last season.
All eyes will be on Graham, however. The longtime veteran of the College’s quarterback carousel, Graham enters his fifth year after starting three games in each of the last two seasons and after throwing 13 touchdowns in 11 games overall. He will need to have the best performance of his career if the Tribe’s offense is to outpace the Mountaineers.
Graham is accompanied by junior running back Keith McBride and junior wide receiver Tre McBride, both of whom have big-play potential. Look for Laycock to get both standouts involved early and often against West Virginia’s questionable defense, which gave up 50 or more points on three occasions last season.
Generally, the difference between FBS teams and FCS teams is less about speed and athleticism and more about meat and bones. West Virginia has 11 players on its roster who are over 300 pounds, while the College has one. The Tribe’s offensive line, anchored by senior Matt Crisafi, will have its hands full Saturday protecting Graham and McBride from the onslaught.
While this game is staged as a West Virginia romp, the Tribe is amped to prove that they belong with the best, and its performance should be telling.
The first game of the season always brings renewed promise, even though this game could very well end in infamy.
Follow @FlatHatsports for live updates, scores, analysis and news live from Morgantown, West Virginia Saturday.