As William and Mary turned the ball over on downs with less than two minutes remaining in Saturday’s game, the Cavaliers’ 35-29 victory over the Tribe was engraved into the record books. But for the entire game leading to that point, the outcome was all but certain as the College stood its ground at Scott Stadium against Football Bowl Subdivision opponent Virginia in a near-upset bid.
“I was extremely pleased with our effort,” head coach Jimmye Laycock said. “There were plenty of things we’d like to have done better or more, but I thought we gave great effort. We hung in there and we played our butts off. Virginia wasn’t giving us anything, we were earning it.”
Knowing full well that it was the underdog — as one expects when pitting a Football Championship Subdivision team against an FBS team in a Power Five conference — the Tribe (1-1) put up a solid fight, only losing by a single touchdown a far better showing than the 2014 matchup against Virginia Tech, a 34-9 blowout loss.
The day began with a William and Mary drive and a 7-0 lead. After initially falling to third down and a lone yard to go, sophomore wideout DeVonte Dedmon caught his first pass of the day for the first down. Dedmon would prove a popular target for junior quarterback Steve Cluley after the receiver didn’t appear in the Tribe’s opener at Lafayette two weeks ago. After the first down, senior tailback Mikal Abdul-Saboor carried for 21 yards into Virginia (1-2) territory with 41 yards remaining to the end zone. On the next play, Cluley threw a high pass to Dedmon, who miraculously held onto the ball through pass interference as he fell onto his back. The College seized an early 7-0 advantage, quickly silencing the over-40,000 Cavalier fans in attendance.
Virginia answered with a touchdown on its first possession, While the Tribe defense held U.Va to four third downs, the conversions were always made, allowing the Cavaliers to steadily move the chains all the way to the College three-yard line, where Virginia’s Matt Johns completed a pass to Connor Wingo-Reeves for the score. With 3:44 to go in the first quarter, the game sat tied at 7-7.
On an incomplete pass during the College’s second drive, pass interference was ruled in its favor, granting it a first down in enemy territory. It proved to be “one step forward, two steps back,” as the next two plays saw a loss of six yards and a false start penalty. Back to the Tribe 45-yard line, Cluley handed off to junior running back Kendell Anderson for a 16-yard rush on 2nd and 21. At the start of the second quarter, Cluley took a snap on 4th and 3 and was immediately surrounded by Virginia defenders. Looking to his right, he lobbed up a pass across his body to the left, which met an unguarded sophomore tight end Andrew Caskin who then ran untouched for another touchdown. At 14:50 in the second quarter, the College led 14-7.
Virginia felt the pressure as the visitors pulled ahead: . The Cavaliers’ Taquan Mizzell, a dominant rusher and receiver throughout the day, lost two yards courtesy of a tackle by senior linebacker Luke Rhodes. On the next play, Johns threw an interception, caught by freshman linebacker Josh Dulaney on the Virginia 32-yard line and adding another two yards on the return. The home crowd became speechless, the only sound in the stadium coming from the small section of increasingly confident Tribe fans.
On this surprise drive, the College was unable to score another touchdown, but was able to kick a successful 43-yard field goal by sophomore kicker Nick Dorka, padding the lead to 17-7 with 12:16 to go in the half.
Virginia didn’t take long to respond, using both Mizzell and Jordan Ellis for respective 36 and 39-yard rushes for a Cavalier touchdown credited to Ellis. The scoreboard now read 17-14, the College still leading much farther into the game than expected. Senior safety DeAndre Houston-Carson commented on Virginia’s early advantages over the College defense compared to later in the game.
“We were running the same stuff throughout the game,” Houston-Carson said. “Most of it was just our execution, just our guys being in the right spot at the right time.”
The College pulled off its fourth consecutive scoring drive with its next possession, Dorka kicking another field goal for the 20-14 lead. Not wanting to risk failing to score, the kick was made from 21-yards out instead of going for the touchdown on 4th and goal on the four-yard line.
The momentum shifted sharply as Virginia established its first lead of the game with its next drive. Johns utilized several passing plays to get into range to strike, including a long 43-yard pass to David Eldridge to the Tribe’s 26-yard line before senior safety Jared Velasquez made the stop. Johns made a 26-yard touchdown pass to Canaan Severin, Virginia’s top receiver over its first two games to tie the score at 20 points apiece. With the extra point, the Cavaliers took a one-point advantage. They would retain the lead for the remainder of the contest, but that didn’t stop William and Mary from executing a strong comeback bid in the fourth quarter.
Both teams had an additional drive before the break, but neither scored. The College punted 60 yards on 4th and six, and Johns was intercepted again, this time by Houston-Carson as time expired.
At the beginning of the second half, Virginia was set to receive the ball as per the opening coin toss. However, Laycock and the Tribe had other plans, instead attempting an onside kick recovered by sophomore safety Keanu Reuben. After significant review of the play, the Tribe was awarded possession. Nothing came of the drive, but it added momentum for the visiting underdogs.
That momentum didn’t last long as Mizzell took off for an 80-yard run to the end zone off a screen pass from Johns on the second play of the drive, putting the Tribe at a 28-20 deficit. The College started to falter as Abdul-Saboor’s rush lost yardage, Cluley was sacked and junior punter Hunter Windmuller’s 62-yard punt was returned for a 74-yard touchdown by Maurice Canady. It was Virginia’s first punt return touchdown since 2004. When the dust settled, the heavily favored Cavaliers shined with a 15-point 35-20 lead with 25 minutes remaining in the game.
Virginia drove again to pad its lead after the Tribe punted on its next drive, but the College defense put pressure on Johns and the receivers resulting in consecutive incompletions. On 4th and 10 on the Tribe 29, Virginia’s Ian Frye attempted a 46-yard field goal but hit the left upright. Running into the kicker was called on the College, resulting in another chance for Frye, this time a 41-yard attempt. With a strategic timeout, Laycock iced the kicker and Frye missed once again, this time hitting the other upright.
With a drive that went through the last five of the third and the first five of the fourth, the College drove into scoring range once again. After a dismal incompletion intended for Dedmon on 4th and 5, a penalty flag was thrown, declaring Virginia roughed the passer. Now with a first down on the U.Va. 16, Abdul-Saboor took several carries to reach the one-yard line. After a timeout, the Tribe used a double-reverse trick play in hopes of scoring where senior receiver Christian Reeves, who then threw to Cluley waiting in the end zone. Unfortunately for the Tribe, the pass floated too long, allowing defenders to smother Cluley as he tried to catch the pass. Virginia took possession on its own one-yard line.
The College defense held strong to force a punt on 4th and 11 with the Cavaliers still on their one-yard line. Houston-Carson blocked the punt and earned a safety, the score now at 35-22. Cluley spoke on encouragement and persevering through the final quarter.
“You never want to think you’re out of a game,” Cluley said. “I thought we came out in the second half a little slow, fell behind, but I think we handled the adversity well and we rallied as an offense to put forth our best effort.”
The last scoring drive of the game was big, as it made the comeback seem like a legitimate possibility. Faced with a fourth and goal from the four-yard line, Cluley found Dedmon cutting to the corner for his second scoring catch of the season. At 35-29, William and Mary stood a single score away from the upset.
The Tribe quickly forced a three and out on Virginia’s ensuing possession, highlighted by senior defensive tackle Tyler Claytor’s sack of Matt Johns, the first sack of 2015 for the Tribe. With three minutes left, the College returned the punt to the Cavalier 46-yard line, the game on the line.
As Abdul-Saboor’s had been pulled from the game twice during injury timeouts, the College elected to solely rely on Cluley. Cluley hit his first pass for a first down. However it was followed by four consecutive incompletions due to the Virginia blitzes, which should have spelled the College’s demise. However, a holding penalty was called on Virginia, giving the College one more chance with a first down and 33 yards to the end zone. On the next play, Cluley was sacked and fumbled. Senior offensive lineman Jared Templeton recovered the ball, but eight yards were lost. Cluley then threw three passes to Dedmon, only one of which was complete. The final pass on 4th and 7 sailed high, sealing the College’s fate.
One of the limiting factors of the College was the injury of Abdul-Saboor as well as two starting linebackers, seniors Ian Haislip and Zach Fetters.
“When you lose two starting linebackers, you’ve got to shuffle some guys around,” Laycock said. “I think [the impact] showed a little bit in the third quarter where we were kind of out of kilter defensively, and once we settled in we were playing much better.”
Statistically, the College played well. Abdul-Saboor ran for 100 yards off 22 carries. Cluley went 23 for 36 with no interceptions and three touchdowns for 226 yards. Dedmon led the College receivers with 80 yards on seven catches and two touchdowns.
On the opposing side, Johns went 17 for 23 with two interceptions, three touchdowns and 263 yards. Mizzell led the game in receiving yards with 123 on five catches.
Defensively, Dulaney and Houston-Carson had two interceptions, with Houston-Carson also leading with nine tackles for the Tribe. Senior defensive tackle Tyler Claytor made the College’s lone sack.
The game was extremely close with the College only two yards below Virginia’s 373 total offensive yards. The College held possession for almost 10 minutes longer than Virginia, but much of that was due to the quick scoring of the third quarter by the Cavaliers.
“If the Tribe really wanted to win, they would have scored another touchdown,” analyst Michael Choi said.
Overall, the College was pleased with the performance if not the result.
“We came to play, we weren’t holding anything back,” Laycock said. “I didn’t come up here to play it close if I could. We came and did our best to win, and I think we came pretty close.”
William and Mary returns to Zable Stadium for its home opener next weekend against conference opponent Stony Brook (2-0), whom the Tribe defeated 27-21 in overtime last season. Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m. Saturday.