As Virginia quarterback Matt Johns took a knee to close out the final seconds of Saturday’s game, the shuffling of silent fans leaving Scott Stadium drowned out the few half-hearted cheers. The Cavaliers’ fight song played and only the band locked together arms to sway. All in all, the 35-29 Cavalier victory over William and Mary seemed more like a funeral procession than a football game, in which both sides departed with their own brand of defeat.
But what a game it was.
Tribe fans can hardly look back and wonder what could have been. The usual impulse to doubt, to question or to become the offensive coordinator for just one play and make that obvious call that should’ve been made — Saturday’s performance is simply immune to all and every criticism.
The Tribe tried everything and anything to win the game. Absolutely everything. The College came into Charlottesville wanting to walk off the field as victors, and everyone watching knew it.
Head coach Jimmye Laycock took risks that would have made a riverboat gambler fold. He paid for some of those decisions too. The Tribe rushed power versus power three times with two yards to pay dirt in the fourth quarter, as conventional football wisdom dictates. When that didn’t work, Laycock called a double-reverse trick play for senior receiver Christian Reeves to pass to junior quarterback Steve Cluley in the end zone. Yet going against the traditional approach still fell short, just inches short of the goaline. Laycock flipped through every page of the playbook: a shovel pass to senior tailback Mikal Abdul-Saboor on second and goal, read-option with Cluley and Abdul-Saboor from the pistol and shotgun, naked bootlegs and the long ball to sophomore wideout Devonte Dedmon off play action.
Abdul-Saboor was caught from behind on the shovel pass; Cluley took huge hits on options to pitch and read, fumbling on one exchange, and Dedmon saw the ball batted away by excellent coverage. A strip-sack on one quarterback bootleg looked to be the Tribe’s last play, had it not been for Jared Templeton’s recovery from being the only Tribe player amongst a pile of orange and blue. Twice the Tribe offense turned the ball over on fourth down.
But just as some gambles fell short, some paid off. On the opening drive, Cluley challenged the Virginia secondary which features three All-Atlantic Coast Conference picks with a 41-yard touchdown strike to Dedmon. The Tribe converted twice on fourth down: one a back-throw arching pass on fourth and 9 with Cluley surrounded by Cavalier lineman that landed in the arms of sophomore tight end Andrew Caskin, who strode down the sideline untouched for 37 yards. The College also blocked a punt for a safety.
The second half began with a risky William and Mary onside kick — failure would spell a short field for a shaky College defense that surrendered huge plays to close the half. But it worked.
The game unfolded with a script designed for a Hollywood football film. As if to foreshadow an astonishing defeat, U.Va. kicker Ian Frye, once in discussion as one of the best kickers in the nation, missed twice in the third quarter. But he didn’t just miss. From 46 yards, the ball clanged off the left upright. Surely a five-yard roughing the kicker penalty would allow Frye to redeem himself. But from 41 yards, the ball instead struck the right upright and bounced away.
It was more than a miss; it was the college football equivalent of divine intervention. That miss was Michigan vs Appalachian State in 2009, it was Alabama vs Auburn in the 2013 Iron Bowl, it was a microcosm of the frustration of the head coach Mike London-era Cavaliers. It was one of those miraculous things that shouldn’t happen, but always foreshadowed a game that would always be remembered.
Clearly the underdog, William and Mary had the perfect storm. A safety off a punt block, a fourth and goal touchdown pass to Dedmon with five minutes left, the first three-and-out created by the first Tribe sack of 2015, and all of a sudden, the Tribe stood poised for an upset, down six points with three minutes left to defeat Football Bowl Subdivision foe U.Va., with just 46 yards to immortality.
But the final fourth down pass hit the dirt rather than the receiver. It wasn’t meant to be.
U.Va. walked away dejected and remorseful. The Cavaliers weren’t only supposed to win, they were supposed to demolish the little Football Championship Subdivsion school. They didn’t even come close to crushing the Tribe. London won’t keep his job, and students won’t come to games. Although the scoreboard said otherwise, the Cavaliers were a defeated team, whereas the Tribe went back to WIlliamsburg pleased with its performance.
For the Tribe, it’s back to FCS football and the goal of the Colonial Athletic Association title. Although the loss is burned into memory, there is one thing that is certain: William and Mary fought every second of that game, and left everything out on that field. Every member of the Tribe should be proud of that game.