William and Mary (2-5, 0-3 CAA) found itself in the midst of a brutally unforgiving stretch of games over the past three weeks. After nearly knocking off No. 5 Villanova at home Saturday, Oct. 5, the Tribe returned to action this Saturday, Oct. 19, with another round against a top five conference foe on hand: No. 2 James Madison (7-1, 4-0 CAA). The incendiary atmosphere that is characteristic of homecoming weekend and a defensive showing that limited the Dukes’ bruising rushing attack to a season low 126 yards were not enough for a Tribe victory. The Dukes prevailed with a score of 38-10.
Following the opening kickoff, the Dukes welcomed graduate transfer Kilton Anderson to his second consecutive start as quarterback with an unmerciful sack by Dukes defensive end John Daka on the game’s initial play. The takedown would prove indicative of the remainder of the first offensive series. The Tribe punted just three snaps after the sack. The Dukes took control near midfield.
Field position manifested itself as the downfall of the Tribe in this game. Dukes head coach Curt Cignetti put his team’s advantage in perspective after the final whistle.
“We had touchdown drives of 13 yards, 14 yards, 21 yards and 36 yards,” Cignetti said. “So, between the defense and the punt returns, the offense had some great field position.”
However, Cignetti did not remember his team’s first drive so fondly. To halt a steady James Madison drive, senior defensive back Isaiah Laster snatched a dart from Dukes quarterback Ben DiNucci out of the sky and landed back in his own end zone with an interception. The Tribe offense took advantage of the breath of new life from the turnover. Do–it–all freshman safety Bronson Yoder exploded through a gaping hole on a handoff for an electrifying 73-yard scamper. The run set up a field goal from Tribe sophomore kicker Jake Johnston to give the College an early three-point nod.
The Tribe defense maintained its tenacity into the next series and coerced the Dukes into a punt. After Anderson was yet again sacked on the next possession, the Tribe punted the ball away themselves. Dukes punt return specialist D’Angelo Amos fielded the kick with a few flattening blockers leading the way. He tiptoed down the sideline, picking up 51 yards, but could not elude one final tackler at the 11-yard line. The Tribe’s early mount of momentum was erased three plays later when DiNucci rifled a pass to wide receiver Brandon Polk across the middle to put the Dukes on the board. The Tribe trailed 7-3 as the first quarter drew to a close.
The teams began the second quarter by trading punts. The Tribe got the ball back until a sequence of critical mistakes was set in motion. On the first play of the possession, Anderson misfired a pass into the waiting hands of Dukes linebacker Wayne Davis, who promptly stepped out of bounds at the Tribe 14-yard line.
The Tribe defended its goal line like a brick wall, resulting in a James Madison 4th and goal from the three-yard line. Senior nose tackle Bill Murray appeared to make a tide–turning play when he sacked DiNucci for an 11-yard loss as the Zable Stadium grandstands erupted. However, the play was negated by an illegal substitution penalty. The Dukes replayed fourth down. Running back Percy Agyei-Obese refused to squander the new lease and bounced above his blockers to extend the lead to 14-3 Dukes as Tribe fans fell silent.
Upon regaining possession, the Tribe was powerless against the Dukes’ stranglehold. Anderson suffered two more sacks that would warrant yet another punt. The Dukes again set out from enemy territory, thanks again to their return ace Amos, who finished the game with 125 total punt return yards. DiNucci orchestrated a short march to the end zone, highlighted by an 18–yard dump–off to tailback Solomon Vanhorse to the one-yard line. On the next play, Agyei-Obese muscled through the line for his second touchdown of the tilt.
The dismal second quarter continued for the Tribe on the ensuing drive. The offense again failed to move the chains when freshman wide receiver Kane Everson lost eight yards on a 3rd and 6 pass from Anderson. Fourth down yielded another punt. The Dukes spent the second quarter pulling away, but the Tribe defense prevented them from putting a cherry on top, getting off the field after only five plays. The Tribe offense was ineffective with less than a minute to operate and entered the locker room staring at a 21-3 deficit.
Once receiving the second half kickoff, the visitors ran two runs up the gut of the Tribe defense, which were swallowed for minimal gains. On third down, DiNucci dropped the ball into the flat to tight end Dylan Stapleton with room to run. Out of nowhere, sophomore safety Gage Herdman torpedoed the ball carrier with a resounding open field tackle to stop the Dukes short of a first down. The Tribe offense matched the defense’s sense of urgency coming from the break. Anderson tossed a pair of passes on the dime to junior wideout Zach Burdick for 15 and 27 yards, respectively.
Backed up to the red zone, the Dukes defense successfully bottled up a couple of direct-snap rushes by the lighting-like Yoder to tempt the Tribe field goal team out on fourth down. However, in an act of mesmerizing trickery, junior quarterback Ted Hefter, the holder on the field goal unit, grabbed the snap and floated a pass that seemed to dangle above the Dukes defense by a string before it dropped into the outreached arms of freshman linebacker Trey Zgombic for the Tribe’s lone touchdown of afternoon. The extra point was added with a kick by Johnston and the scoreboard read 21-10. The Tribe looked revived.
On the Dukes’ following campaign, the College defense bent without quite breaking. Tribe senior linebacker Nate Atkins applauded the efforts of his unit, despite finding themselves in less than favorable situations time and time again.
“As a defense we pride ourselves on being dependable and being able to pick up the offense if they struggle,” Atkins said. “Having so many guys that have been on this defense for a long time, we feel confident in our ability to go out there regardless of the situation.”
Facing 3rd and 11, Dinucci connected with Polk for 18 yards and a fresh set of downs. Agyei-Obese rushed for first downs on consecutive plays to advance the ball to the 15–yard line but was stifled for no gain on his third–straight carry. Then, DiNucci misfired while looking for Polk on both second and third down and the Dukes settled for a field goal. James Madison led 24-10.
An injured Anderson was replaced by Hefter at quarterback soon after his fake–field–goal heroics. However, he failed to lead a similar six-point surge while in command of the offense, lasting just three plays before punting. The Tribe suffered a roughing the passer penalty on first down of the next drive. The flag set up a flawless over–the-shoulder touchdown grab by Dukes receiver Kyndel Dean from 37 yards out. The Tribe got the ball back trailing 31-10 and the third quarter was history.
Hefter’s magic seemed to be all gone at the dawn of the final quarter. After guiding the offense across the Dukes’ side of the front, he was intercepted by the game’s other special teams standout Amos. The Dukes attempted to enlarge their lead to no avail; a 38-yard field goal try missed wide right. With time winding down, Hefter and company were tasked with pulling off a miraculous comeback. The Dukes deployed a two headed rushing attack of Agyei-Obese and Jawon Hamilton to run out the remaining minutes. In front of a backdrop of purple bleachers, the clock dwindled as the teams pinballed punts.
The Dukes ultimately delivered the knockout punch in the waning moments of the game. Hefter threw his second interception to Dukes safety Adam Smith. Just 20 yards away from a score, Hamilton carried the Dukes to the cusp of pay dirt one final time. Running back Latrele Palmer scored on a one-yard stampede. The game that started with a bang for the Tribe ended in a whimper.
Regardless of the palpable disappointment emanating from Saturday’s loss, Tribe head coach Mike London acknowledged a number of silver linings surrounding his program as it looks toward the future.
“This program will be at a level where we will compete at a high level, but it’s always tough at the building blocks in the beginning,” London said. “This team is not feeling sorry for itself … we will rise to the occasion of getting better as a team. … But it is disappointing to lose at home in your homecoming.”
The Tribe will hit the road next weekend for a date with Maine.