When sophomore quarterback Steve Cluley’s Hail Mary pass fell to the ground, it sealed William and Mary’s 35-31 loss to No. 5 Villanova. The defeat did not, however, ruin the Tribe’s pursuit of a Football Championship Series playoff appearance.
The Tribe (4-3, 1-2 CAA) needs to rally from a nightmarish two-game stretch. The College lost consecutive games in excruciating fashion, the first a road blowout against New Hampshire, the second last week’s near victory over Villanova. The Tribe ranks eighth out of 12 in the Colonial Athletic Association.
Still, the Tribe’s season is far from finished, and the squad’s fate is not yet sealed. Villanova (6-1, 4-0 CAA) and New Hampshire (5-1, 3-0 CAA) are both undefeated in the CAA and are apparent frontrunners in the conference, but the Tribe can compete for third place.
That would be no small feat. Since the conference started playing football in 2007, at least three CAA teams have made the final bracket of the FCS. The College has already faced the first and second place teams in the conference, so it’s possible that the most arduous part of the season has passed.
In a sense, the College’s season begins anew this weekend. If the Tribe wins its final five games, three of which are at home, it would finish 6-2 in the CAA and likely make the FCS bracket for the first time since 2010. There is slim margin for error, but the goal is attainable. It all starts Saturday, when the College hosts Delaware at Zable Stadium.
The College’s offense is coming off its best performance of the season. Cluley, after showing flashes of potential throughout the season, dominated last Saturday with 350 yards and three touchdowns. Cluley tossed two long touchdowns to senior receiver Tre McBride and was so effective in throwing downfield that he pulled Villanova’s defense away from the line of scrimmage. As a result, the Tribe piled up 168 rushing yards on 37 carries, bringing the offense’s total to 518 yards on the day. If the College plays at that level, it can compete with any team in the CAA, including Delaware.
Delaware (4-3, 2-1 CAA) is coming off a 24-17 home loss to Towson and has not dominated any statistical category. The Blue Hens are averaging 20.4 points per game and are surrendering 25.3. Their turnover margin of minus-seven is one of the worst in the CAA.
This season, Blue Hens quarterback Trent Hurley has completed 61.9 percent of his passes for 1,273 yards and six touchdowns. Of those 1,273 yards, receiver Michael Johnson has 506 of them, a whopping 39 percent. The College has to contain Johnson and force Hurley to target his less dependable receivers.
The Blue Hens average 153.1 rushing yards per game, splitting carries evenly between backs Wes Hills and Jalen Randolph. The Blue Hens are not an offensive powerhouse, so if the College avoids surrendering big plays and focuses on slowing down the Delaware running game, it should be able to contain the offense.
The key question is whether the Tribe can replicate its explosive performance against Villanova, which saw the College reach a season-high in yards and hold the Wildcats a touchdown below their 41.8 point scoring average. The College can be expected to run early and often, as it has all year, which in turn will set up Cluley for play action passes and ensure his receivers avoid double coverage. But the College should not be afraid to pass — it aggressively called for deep and mid-range throws last week against Villanova with success.
Overall, the College needs to shake off its last two defeats and look forward. The FCS tournament is still possible, and that quest continues Saturday at Zable Stadium. The Tribe will face Delaware at 12:30 p.m.