After William and Mary’s unceremonious second-round exit from the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs Dec. 5 via a 48-13 drubbing courtesy of the Richmond Spiders, I felt somewhat vindicated that my pessimism regarding the rematch game with the archrival was justified. The troubling symptoms of increased turnovers and a woefully inconsistent defense that began to surface Nov. 21 indeed metastasized into a season-ending disease. Were it not against funeral etiquette, the entire paper could be filled with various “I told you so” concerns — a dismal pass rush, a linebacker corps failing to fill the running gaps , a suddenly shaky offensive line and a lack of imagination in using a mobile quarterback — entering the final weeks of the season, cross-referenced with helpful analyses from the coaching staff when confronted with said deficiencies, namely “52-49,” the timeless insight from head coach Jimmye Laycock on the narrow first round victory over Duquesne.
This article is by no means a comment on the 2016 potential of the Tribe. Graduation will claim many key players, but junior quarterback Steve Cluley will return despite his injury suffered in the last game. Sophomore kicker Nick Dorka (who earned STATS and AP All-American distinction and first-team all-CAA honors) and junior runningback Kendell Anderson as the main running back will also be back next year.
Though the final three weeks of the season exemplified the idiom “crash and burn”, it’s important to remember that the 2015 Tribe should not be solely defined by its dismal finish.
Though the final three weeks of the season exemplified the idiom “crash and burn”, it’s important to remember that the 2015 Tribe should not be solely defined by its dismal finish. At the start the season, the College was far from a playoff contender, and even a winning season was in question. The Tribe that triumphed over Lafayette can hardly be identified as the College’s 2015 unit. Senior running back Mikal Abdul-Saboor was still the lead rusher, sophomore Aaron Swinton was the No. 2 cornerback and no one knew who was supposed to replace Tre McBride ‘15 at receiver. With a couple of timely interceptions and a heavy rushing attack, the Tribe cruised to a 34-7 opening victory.
Then came the first defining moment of the 2015 season — the matchup against Virginia in Charlottesville. At Scott Stadium, Cluley performed as the solid starter the College had hoped he would be. In every clutch situation, Cluley seemed to find his favorite target for the season, sophomore wideout DeVonte Dedmon. The Tribe finally felt confident in the passing attack, Cluley finishing 22 of 36 for 220 yards and three touchdowns in the College’s conservative approach, as Cluley threw the ball away or took a sack when faced with pressure rather than turn the ball over.
The keys were revealed for Cluley’s success: conservative passing and taking what the defense allows. Junior tailback Kendell Anderson emerged as the thunder to Abdul-Saboor’s lightning. The narrow 35-29 loss may have been the best offensive performance of the season for the Tribe with no turnovers.
Switching from all-conference corner to all-conference safety for his senior season, DeAndre Houston-Carson led in tackles at Lafayette and repeated the act against the Cavaliers while also blocking a punt to boot. Senior linebacker Luke Rhodes, however, disappeared on the field, only to reemerge as the guilty party losing track of his man on a halfback screen for an 80-yard touchdown. Instead, senior linebacker Zach Fetters proved to be the big-play linebacker with a timely interception. The pass rush for the Tribe lacked in every regard, with the exception of a single sack by senior defensive tackle Tyler Claytor. The second game of the season provided storylines for the entire year — Houston-Carson proved to be the cornerstone of the defense for the entire season, Rhodes never lived up to the preseason hype, and Claytor stood out as the only defensive lineman capable of making the big play.
Houston-Carson’s emergence as a game-changer may be the best story of the season.
Houston-Carson’s emergence as a game-changer may be the best story of the season. The free safety was invited to the 2016 Senior Bowl, a hotspot for National Football League scouts, after his 109 tackles, four interceptions, two blocks,and a sack of 2015 earned him first-team all-CAA distinction, co-CAA Defensive Player of the Year honors, consensus first-team All-American honors, ECAC All-Star honors and distinction as a finalist for the Dudley Award, given to Virginia’s top NCAA football player.
Fast-forward to Stony Brook, the College’s home opener Sept. 26. In a 21-0 victory in the pouring rain, Anderson ripped off 191 yards rushing on just 19 carries in the first of many dominant performances en route to nearly breaking the single-season rushing yards record set by Jonathan Grimes ‘12. The Tribe offense firmly found its identity as a run-first unit, and Anderson received recognition as a contender for CAA Offensive Player of the Year.
Then the newly-ranked No. 25 Tribe suffered the first major disappointment of the season. The Delaware Blue Hens trucked over the College’s rush defense in a 24-23 victory. The last-minute field goal on Oct. 3 ultimately pushed the Tribe out of sole possession of the Colonial Athletic Association title Nov. 21, resulting in a three-way split of the CAA title with James Madison and Richmond.
At 2-2, the season’s results remained very much in doubt, with an unfriendly schedule looming and the bye week already gone in week two. Three of the Tribe’s next four opponents ranked in the top 25 — Villanova, New Hampshire and James Madison. Even a 2-2 split seemed overly optimistic for the unranked Tribe.
Instead, the Tribe’s rushing attack surged the College ahead for victories over all three. Luck had a small role — No. 14/16 Villanova played a freshman quarterback due to the injury to 2014 Walter Peyton award winner John Robertson. Houston-Carson collected a pick-six, redemption for the Tribe’s constantly bending defense, and senior receiver Christian Reeves and Dedmon proved excellent targets for Cluley.
Against No. 9 James Madison at home, the then-No. 16/15 Tribe needed to pull off the upset for a reasonable shot at the postseason.
Against No. 9 James Madison at home, the then-No. 16/15 Tribe needed to pull off the upset for a reasonable shot at the postseason. With the exception of blocked extra points, the defense did no favors for the College. However, a perfectly balanced offense proved to be the winning ticket for the Tribe, though it lost Reeves in the process. The absence of James Madison’s starting quarterback Vad Lee to a season-ending injury was no doubt a boost as well.
Elon and Towson were both dispatched with relative ease. Fetters stood out in both victories on defense, while sophomore receiver Daniel Kuzjak appeared to be a solid replacement for Reeves. Yet the Tribe didn’t register a 100-yard rusher in either game, as the offense began to rely more upon Cluley. With the 21 of 23 for 268 yards and three touchdown performance against Towson, that didn’t appear to be an issue for the Tribe. The win over Towson sealed a perfect 5-0 at Zable for the regular season.
Then Richmond happened in the regular season finale, and the underperforming defense for the Tribe, largely unnoticed for the majority of the season, emerged as the primary weakness.
Every strength for William and Mary evaporated and every weakness became a crucial failing.
You know the rest. Eight interceptions and three fumbles lost in the last three games for the offense. 228 yard rushing allowed to Richmond followed by 428 passing yards and six touchdowns allowed against Duquesne Thanksgiving weekend, and finally the coup d’grace of 302 rushing yards allowed in the blowout loss to Richmond to end the season the first weekend of December.
What happened between the Towson victory and that first loss to Richmond changed the identity of a season. The contrast between the two weeks is not just in one category but in all — turnovers, pass protection, run defense and pass defense — every strength for William and Mary evaporated and every weakness became a crucial failing.
Before, the College was the rising star of the CAA on a six-game winning streak with a newfound game-changer in Anderson and a defense that could always get by as long as Fetters, Houston-Carson or Claytor stepped up in key spots. Really the question comes down to potential. Either the three top-25 upsets in four weeks and 6-0 record at home marked the pinnacle of the Tribe’s ability and the collapse to Richmond was inevitable, or the College just watched a team capable of winning the CAA and a game against a Football Bowl Subdivision team tragically dissolve in the late-season games that matter most, against the team the Tribe hates the most.
With Richmond progressing all the way to the final four of the FCS tournament, I’m relieved to say that the former appears to be true. The 2015 William and Mary team was simply not at that national caliber yet. Kudos to them for making us think they were.