The last time the College of William and Mary was playing in a regular season game this important, senior quarterback Jake Phillips wasn’t even on the field.
As a true freshman in 2004, Phillips watched from the sidelines as Lang Campbell ’04 led a 7-2 Tribe squad past the 8-1 James Madison University Dukes, en route to the program’s most recent conference championship. The College clinched the upset win on a last-minute field goal in front of a raucous JMU home crowd.
“I wasn’t playing. Lang was starting, and I remember going up there and watching the game,” Phillips said. “The atmosphere was amazing.”
Phillips will experience that atmosphere again Saturday afternoon as the 12th-ranked Tribe (7-2, 5-1 CAA) takes on the no. 1 Dukes (8-1, 6-0 CAA) in a game dripping with playoff implications.
The Tribe can all but clinch its first postseason bid in four years with an upset win in Harrisonburg, while a JMU victory would give the Dukes the CAA title and likely assure it the top seed in the FCS playoffs.
Furthermore, the contest will take on even more personal overtones for the College’s fifth year seniors, a group on the sideline for both of those dramatic 2004 games and a large part of the Tribe’s drastic turnaround this season.
“Whenever the schedules come out, [the JMU game] is one game that you circle on your calendar immediately,” Phillips said. “Before the season started, I was talking to [senior linebacker] Josh Rutter, and we were thinking, ‘If we can do a few things we could set ourselves up nicely,’ and that’s where we are right now. You couldn’t ask for anything better. This [game] is exactly what we wanted.”
However, a win tomorrow won’t be easy. JMU is led by dynamic quarterback Rodney Landers, one of the best players in the FCS, who is capable of making plays with his feet and his arm.
“There’s a reason why JMU is no. 1 in the nation and one of those reasons is Landers,” Head Coach Jimmye Laycock said. “We had a really tough time with him last year and a lot of other people have had a tough time with him this year. ”
If the College can stop Landers, it will still have to defend against speedy return-man Scotty McGee, owner of four touchdown returns this season, and battle a fast and physical Dukes defense.
Regardless of the challenges, the Tribe enters Bridgeforth Stadium tomorrow, fully prepared for its biggest regular season contest since that upset win four years ago.
“The way the environment is up there and the atmosphere, it’s so awesome for college football, and that’s what you want at every game,” Phillips said. “You want it to be loud and hectic, and I’m excited for it because I think this team can really thrive under the pressure. The past few years [this matchup] hasn’t been as meaningful of a game, but this year [the playoff circumstances] make the rivalry a little more special.”