A year ago, senior quarterback Jake Phillips led the College of William and Mary’s offense to an impressive season as the Tribe racked up 29 points and 396 yards of offense per game with Phillips accounting for 2,801 yards and 19 touchdowns through the air.
However, in this season’s opener against North Carolina State University, that same high-octane unit failed to get on track as Phillips was held to a mere 15 of 30 passing with two interceptions and a touchdown.
Few CAA players are more essential to their team’s success than Phillips, and this weekend’s home opener against Virginia Military Institute will provide the senior quarterback with the perfect opportunity to rebound from last week’s defeat.
“This is obviously a big game, it’s the home opener for us and a long-time rivalry,” senior center Luke Hiteshew said. “We really need to work on getting 11 guys on the same page at the same time.”
Tomorrow night at Zable Stadium, the Tribe offense should find that proposition much more accommodating than in last week’s 34-24 defeat. The College has downed the Keydets 22 straight times, the secondlongest win streak of its kind in the nation, while outscoring VMI 218-59 over the last five meetings.
Phillips and the offense have already received a boost with the return of junior wide receiver D.J. McAulay. Back in the starting lineup against N.C. State after missing nearly all of last season with an injured knee, McAulay showed no signs of rustiness, catching six passes for 99 yards and two touchdowns.
The possible return of sophomore wideout Cameron Dohse from injury should help the Tribe passing game, but sophomore Chase Hill, who earned the third wide receiver spot in preseason and caught four passes for 45 yards in his debut, suffered a concussion at N.C. State and will not play.
Despite the College’s perennial dominance over VMI, the Keydet’s unique option offense could cause headaches for the Tribe defense. After utilizing an aggressive, attacking style to limit N.C. State in week one, the unit will be forced to adjust to a much more complicated game plan.
“It’s tough to make that adjustment [to defending the option] in one week,” Head Coach Jimmye Laycock said. “Last week we kind of turned ourselves loose defensively which did a really good job keeping [N.C. State] off balance, but whether you can do that against option type stuff is going to be a little more difficult.”
Senior safety David Caldwell agreed with that assessment, citing the squad’s focus on using a disciplined system to combat an intricate offense, which could have as many as three or four possible ball carriers per play.
“It’s always a challenge when you’re going into the VMI game,” Caldwell said. “The main thing that you need to do is just be right on your assignments. You don’t want to be overaggressive because that’s where they can get you.”
Regardless of the challenges, the Tribe will use its home opener as a chance to work out any kinks in its game plan, while relishing the supportive atmosphere after playing in a tough stadium against N.C. State.
“We need to improve in certain areas, but we’re ready to come back home and play in front of a full house,” Laycock said.
Keys to the game
Develop passing game
The Tribe is at its best when senior quarterback Jake Phillips is on target with his throws, hitting open receivers downfield. In the College’s four wins last year, Phillips was efficient, completing 64 percent of his passes compared to 53 percent of his throws in their seven losses.
Stop the option
Last week against N.C. State, the Tribe defense held the Wolfpack to a stingy 67 yards on the ground. However, the Keydets’ option attack is a very different system from the Wolfpack’s power running game, and the defense’s ability to adjust to the different systems will be thoroughly tested.
While playmakers at several key positions remain out this weekend, spots are open for backups to step up and seize a key role. If younger players like freshman tailback Jonathan Grimes and sophomore safety Michael Alvarado want to prove they can be counted on down the stretch, now is their time to do it.
The Tribe is one of the least penalized teams in the CAA. Last year, the College recorded 49 penalties in 11 games — the fewest in the conference. Against N.C. State, the Tribe continued to play disciplined football, resulting in only three penalties for 15 yards.
Head Coach Jimmye Laycock was particularly enthused about his squad’s performance on special teams against the Wolfpack. Sophomore punter David Miller averaged 45.3 yards per punt — a 10.2 yard increase over his 2007 season average. Meanwhile, junior kicker Brian Pate was similarly strong, booming kickoffs into the endzone and recording one touchback — equal to his 2007 total.