William and Mary gave West Virginia all it could handle Saturday, but instead of walking away with a headline win, the Tribe headed back to Williamsburg with an agonizing loss.
Although a blowout loss seemed preordained as soon as the game was scheduled, for 21 minutes, the College led the Mountaineers by as much as 10 points. The faithful Tribe fans, tucked into a single section in the Southeast corner of Milan Puskar Stadium, were ecstatic, daring to dream that they would witness a miracle.
Then the dream receded back into reality. The Mountaineers rebounded to outscore the College 17-0 in the second half, hammering the Tribe defense with their superior size and snatching the lead with just over three minutes left in the game. Tribe fans were left unsure whether to be grateful for a magical first half or disappointed to go home with a loss.
One should not forget the high notes of the Tribe’s performance in the bitterness of the final result. Senior quarterback Michael Graham was poised in the often-deafening stadium, completing 66 percent of his passes for 207 yards and logging two touchdowns. Junior receiver Tre McBride competed gamely with the Mountaineers’ athletic defenders, logging 108 receiving yards and helping to set up all three Tribe scores. Perhaps most impressively, the Tribe defense allowed just five yards in a successful second quarter before crumbling against the hosts’ blockers in the second half.
Despite these positives, it is difficult to forget how over-matched the College looked in its scoreless second half. With the exception of Ronald Carswell’s wide-open 69-yard touchdown reception, the Mountaineer offense had neither need nor reason to throw downfield. They relied on short throws and power runs throughout the half and used their mammoth offensive line to pound the tenacious but undersized Tribe defense into submission.
The Tribe had no such physical advantage; it spent the second half trying to seal the game with running plays and short passes, but it had little chance against a Mountaineer defense that had no fear of the Tribe throwing farther than 10 yards. Head coach Jimmye Laycock’s apparent mistrust of his passing game only compounded the issue, as the host defense crept closer to the line of scrimmage as the second half progressed. There is no question the Tribe’s inability or hesitation to stretch the Mountaineers’ defense vertically was critical to its scoreless second half.
It is not clear how fans should react to Saturday’s defeat. Surely one cannot lambast the Tribe for being unable to hold firm against a bigger, faster, stronger opponent for 60 minutes, but one can wonder whether their offense will be more diverse as the season progresses. The offense was obviously less aggressive in the second half, running on seemingly every first down and barely trying to keep the Mountaineer defense uneasy. This was somewhat understandable against an intimidating opponent in a hostile environment, but the Tribe should consider playing more aggressively against future opponents, rather than allowing itself to become predictable.
As the team prepares for a less daunting match-up this week, Tribe fans can remember the peak moment of Saturday’s game. It was halftime, and fans were taking pictures of the 17-7 score on the Jumbotron, reveling at the stunned Mountaineer fans and believing the mammoth upset was possible. That was the moment when Tribe fans, after back-to-back unfulfilling seasons, could dare to dream of greatness. The fans can always hold that memory, a remarkable moment in a still young season. How the season will proceed is unclear right now, but hopefully Tribe fans will continue to join in the ride.