With Veterans Day still large in the rearview mirror, William and Mary (4-7, 2-5 CAA) welcomed the United States armed forces to Zable Stadium to celebrate the final home game of the 2019 season against Colonial Athletic Association foe Towson (7-4, 4-3 CAA). On the field, the performance fell far short of heroic. Tribe fans cheered as a cannon was ignited prior to the 1 p.m. kickoff. What they didn’t know was that there would be little explosiveness to clamor over for the rest of the afternoon. The Tribe will have to wait another year for another shot to win in front of its home crowd; it faltered 31-10.
The Tigers began with an offensive surge behind the thundering attack of running back Yeedee Thaenrat. The Tribe defense parted on a 51-yard push from Thaenrat to set himself up for a three-yard dive on the subsequent play. But the Tribe responded with a massive gain of their own. In an act of beautiful deception, junior wide receiver Zach Burdick launched the ball deep to a fellow receiver, freshman Kane Everson. The 62-yard pick up would help the Tribe cut into their deficit when senior kicker Kris Hooper sent the ball sailing between the uprights. After each taking a turn at the wheel, Towson claimed a 7-3 edge.
Towson quarterback Tom Flacco — little brother of long–time Baltimore Ravens quarterback and current Denver Bronco Joe Flacco — kept the Tribe defense on its heels on the next drive. Overcoming a seven-yard sack by Tribe senior nose tackle Bill Murray, Flacco picked apart his opponent with a series of quick, short passes. The Tigers took their businesslike strut all the way to the end zone. Tailback Adrian Feliz-Platt picked up his first rushing touchdown of the season, punching it in from one yard out. The Tribe reclaimed possession buried in a 14-3 hole.
Freshman quarterback Hollis Mathis, who earned the start after an electrifying performance last Saturday, couldn’t generate the same type of spark that Burdick had on the previous drive. Mathis suffered a sack as the first quarter clock fell to zero.
Towson reeled in a Tribe punt to begin quarter number two. The Tigers returned to the ground game and Thaenrat. However, the offense didn’t take off like it had on the previous two possessions. They would pick up a lone first down before calling on the punt team. Luckily for the Tigers, the Tribe mirrored them with an offensively inept drive of their own by going three and out. Feliz-Platt harnessed his elusiveness as a runner, ducking between feeble attempts at bringing him down on a 14–yard gain. Flacco would take it from there. He located his receiver Shane Leatherbury on multiple occasions, threading the needle for a six-yard score.
Now trailing 21-3, and in search of rejuvenation, Mathis locked onto Burdick as his target. A play that could have spurred a Tribe comeback ended in tragedy. Mathis didn’t muster quite enough power for his heave and came down just shy of Burdick’s reach. The pass was more than within reach of the trailing Towson defender, who was able to get a big enough piece to send the ball ballooning up into the air. Gravity graciously allowed Tigers safety S.J. Brown enough time to run beneath the ball and secure an interception. With a tip of his hat to the defense, Flacco once again orchestrated a campaign to get within striking distance. At first, he found a wide-open Leatherbury for another six-yard touchdown, but the scoring play was negated by an offensive penalty. As a result, the Tigers would have to settle for a field goal before halftime. The score at the break was 24-3 Tigers.
The pep band buzzed around like bumblebees in their striped shirts in hopes of giving Tribe fans something to smile about. The cannon unexpectedly fired again and sent a collective shiver down the collective spine of the crowd. Luckily, they had something to keep them on the edge of their seats for the second half. Perhaps the Tribe should have taken some inspiration from the cannon when they received the second half kickoff. Outside of an impressive scramble by Mathis for a first down, the offense face-planted and would be prompted to punt the ball away. The Tigers’ offense continued to operate under the moniker “slow and steady wins the race,” systematically eroding away the Tribe’s defense with dink-and-dunk passes and an abrasive rushing strafe. What felt like an eon after the Tribe’s third quarter commencing punt, the Tigers lined up for a first–and–goal. Flacco faded a screen pass for Leatherbury. Leatherbury snuck behind a few blockers plunged across the goal line for his second touchdown. Flacco picked up his 20th touchdown pass of the season; the Tigers extended their lead: 31-3.
Tribe head coach Mike London seemed to be in awe of the opposing quarterback at the postgame press conference.
“He’s as advertised,” London said. “He was the CAA preseason player of the year, and he’s a special player. When you have your guy like that that can make you go through the air, manage the game, make some throws. He’s a special player.”
Flacco finished with an efficient stat line: 20 of 29 passing for 191 yards and two touchdowns.
The Tribe offense churned to about midfield. Freshman running back and safety Bronson Yoder barreled up the middle for four yards on a fourth down to keep the drive alive. Four would prove to be an unlucky number for the Tribe, though. It hovered around midfield until fourth down inevitably came up again. Mathis forced a pass to a heavily shadowed Burdick. Tigers defensive back Coby Tippett knocked the feeble attempt to the ground. The fourth quarter began after a Tribe turnover on downs.
The coffin was all but nailed when the Tribe caught a glimmer of hope. Freshman linebacker Isiah Jones forced Feliz-Pratt to lose control of the ball on an off-tackle rush. Senior linebacker Gavin Johnson scooped up the fumble at the William and Mary 46-yard line. For the first time that afternoon, the Tribe had a semblance of momentum to work with. The mistakes kept pouring in from the Tigers. A late hit out of bounds and holding were called against the defense on the same six-yard scramble by Mathis. The 25 total yards inflicted by the penalties pinned the Tigers against the wall for the first time since the initial quarter. While in the red zone, Yoder appeared to lose a fumble, except an official review revealed that he was down and the Tribe maintained possession. Then, at the culmination of this late penetration into Tiger territory, Mathis sought out Burdick double covered in the back corner of the end zone on fourth down. Burdick made an acrobatic catch over the pair of defenders. The problem for the Tribe was that he was just a step out of bounds. The ball was returned to the Tigers on downs.
Disregarding the defensive stand, the Tigers still looked about ready to wrap it up and head home. Backup quarterback Ryan Stover entered the game. He and the offense looked anemic in moving the ball to their own 34-yard line. Then, in a shocking and long overdue twist for the Tribe, sophomore linebacker Trey Watkins poked the ball away from Stover. Junior linebacker Tyler Crist corralled the loose ball and raced for the endzone. He triumphantly raised the ball to the cloudy sky as he broke the plane of the goal line.
Crist humbly downplayed his role in the scoop-and-score and reflected praise onto his teammate Watkins when asked postgame about the Tribe’s highlight moment.
“I was just in the right place at the right time,” Crist said. “I give most of the credit to Trey, he stripped the ball out and he got the tackle. Coach Brown preaches just be where you need to be, fill in your gap, do your job.”
At long last, the Tribe had scored a touchdown. Just under 10 minutes remained on the clock; the Tigers still led comfortably by a 31-10 margin. The ROTC students had waited all afternoon for something to cheer for; now they had seen enough and filed toward the exits.
In their absence, the Tribe made another stretch for the endzone. This time it was the offense. Burdick made one more circus-style catch, this time inbounds, to bring another score within sniffing distance. But then the Tribe would return to the usual form they displayed all day. On the doorstep of the end zone, Mathis lost a fumble while reaching for pay dirt. The coffin was hammered shut. In a fitting end to the contest, the Tribe endured a 45–yard penalty, enforced against three separate players, before the final snap. A plastic bag levitated past the lopsided scoreboard as the clock struck zero.
The Tribe wraps up the 2019 season next Saturday on the road. It will travel to Richmond to face London’s alma mater with hopes of ending the season on a win in the Capital Classic.