Commentary: Saved by the secondary
Written by Chris Travis|
October 17, 2016
Down and out. By the opening minute of the fourth quarter on Saturday, William and Mary was trailing a mediocre Delaware team 14-3 and found the Blue Hens knocking on the door once again. When Delaware quarterback Joe Walker hoisted a pass down the right sideline and into the end zone, it felt certain the Blue Hens would score and the Tribe would watch its chance of making it back to the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs dwindle away. Instead, junior cornerback Aaron Swinton had other ideas. He perfectly timed a leap to intercept Walker’s pass as he fell to the ground in the end zone.
Swinton’s crucial interception sparked a Tribe rally for the ages, as a bumbling offense led by the previously struggling senior quarterback Steve Cluley came alive to engineer two straight touchdown drives to take a 17-14 lead with just over four minutes remaining. The second of these drives came after head coach Jimmye Laycock ’70 chose to roll the dice and attempt an onside kick. In what was the gutsiest coaching decision of the season thus far, Laycock opted to place the likely fate of the game on the foot of redshirt freshman backup kicker Kris Hooper, who was filling in for the injured junior Nick Dorka.
Swinton’s crucial interception sparked a Tribe rally for the ages, as a bumbling offense led by the previously struggling senior quarterback Steve Cluley came alive to engineer two straight touchdown drives to take a 17-14 lead with just over four minutes remaining.
Hooper, whose struggles have been in the spotlight this season, was coming just two weeks off a poor performance at New Hampshire, in which he missed field goals from 32 and 35 yards, managed to punt the ball only 17 yards and added on a missed extra point for good measure. Nevertheless, Laycock trusted him.
Saturday, Hooper righted his wrongs and gave the home team a huge boost of momentum when he executed an onside kick to perfection, kicking the ball down to give it a nice hop that sophomore wide receiver Jack Armstrong got underneath and recovered.
Laycock’s gamble paid huge dividends for the Tribe, keeping the now-thriving offense on the field and allowing them to march down the field to take the aforementioned 17-14 lead.
On the following possession, Delaware woke up and reasserted itself, breaking through tackles at the line and bursting into the secondary on rushing plays. In just six plays, the Blue Hens moved 30 yards up the field with little resistance, marching into Tribe territory to set themselves up for the potential winning drive.
On the following play, Swinton made sure that we hadn’t forgotten, despite all the onside kick chaos, that he was the one who had saved the game for the Tribe. Swinton anticipated a short route perfectly, jumped in front of the receiver for his second interception of the day, and dashed 63 yards down the right sideline to put the game out of reach at 24-14 with under two minutes remaining.
The star of Saturday’s homecoming win came from quite an unexpected source. At the start of this season, the College’s secondary was largely a question mark.
The star of Saturday’s homecoming win came from quite an unexpected source. At the start of this season, the College’s secondary was largely a question mark. Senior cornerback Trey Reed returned, but there were still massive holes to fill around him. The graduation and subsequent NFL career of DeAndre Houston-Carson ’16 meant this year’s Tribe secondary was tasked with replacing one of the most dynamic defensive players in program history. Swinton himself, who missed all of last season after suffering a serious knee injury in the opener against Lafayette, was an unlikely hero. Against all odds, Swinton and the have established themselves as one of the team’s strongest position groups and certainly the most critical one moving forward.
Of the Tribe’s four remaining regular season games, three come against undeniably-strong passing attacks. Three quarterbacks — Maine’s Dan Collins, Towson’s Ellis Knudson and Richmond’s Kyle Lauletta — have already passed for over 1000 yards this season and will present a challenge for the Tribe.
With a weak start to the season and a difficult portion of the schedule still yet to be played, the future still couldn’t be called bright. The Tribe likely needs to win all four of its remaining games in order to be seriously considered for a bid to the FCS playoffs.
Luckily, there are plenty of signs that indicate Swinton will have help. Redshirt freshman safety Corey Parker has had a tremendous rookie campaign, with 46 total tackles, three interceptions and a pair of fumble recoveries to his name through just seven games. Reed has also performed well and has 32 tackles and two picks on the season. True freshman safety Isaiah Laster has also shown flashes of promise, as he did with an interception earlier this season against Hampton and a critical deep pass defended on Saturday.
With a weak start to the season and a difficult portion of the schedule still yet to be played, the future still couldn’t be called bright. The Tribe likely needs to win all four of its remaining games in order to be seriously considered for a bid to the FCS playoffs. While offensive inconsistencies and injuries on the defensive front make this goal likely unattainable, Swinton and the Tribe secondary delivered a clear moment of hope on Homecoming Saturday.