The no. 2 and no. 5 FCS teams in the country met Saturday night in Villanova, Pa., and the result was a mismatch on the stats sheet. Consider these numbers:
Team A ran 86 offensive plays, gained 472 total yards and 27 first downs. They racked up over 32 minutes of possession and went 10 for 19 on third down chances.
Team B managed only 283 yards and 15 first downs on 52 plays. That squad was able to convert only 3 of its 10 third down opportunities.
The two teams aren’t who you think. Team A is William and Mary, who fell to its first loss of the season. Team B is the Villanova Wildcats, who improved to 5-0 by thoroughly beating the Tribe 28-17. The College led in nearly every major statistical category, but spent nearly the entire game trailing by a significant margin.
The key? Mistakes.
“It’s pretty evident that when we were doing things right, we were fine,” Head Coach Jimmye Laycock said. “But when we were turning it over and committing penalties and things like that, we weren’t fine. I think ultimately that’s what did us in.”
With the exception of maybe five or six plays, Laycock’s Tribe would have rolled to a comfortable victory. Instead, the team cost itself repeatedly with key mistakes, and never seriously threatened the Wildcats’s lead after the first quarter.
For that reason, all the above-mentioned statistics can be thrown out for the three that really mattered in this game. The College committed 8 penalties for 75 yards — often at key junctures — and turned the ball over twice. They scored only 14 points despite being in the red-zone five times. Villanova had only 2 penalties for 15 yards and did not commit a turnover. The Wildcats scored a touchdown on each of their three red zone opportunities.
Nowhere was that disparity more evident than on a pair of plays late in the first quarter.
After the Wildcats jumped out to a quick 7-0 lead, the teams traded punts. On the Tribe’s second possession, senior quarterback R.J. Archer marched the offense quickly down the field to the Villanova eight-yard line. There, with the College threatening to tie the score, he was picked off in the end zone.
The Tribe defense stepped up and forced a fourth down almost immediately after senior cornerback Terrell Wells delivered a jolting hit to a Villanova wide receiver. But then, senior defensive end C.J. Herbert picked up an inexcusable 15-yard taunting penalty after the play was over. First down, Wildcats. Tribe momentum? Gone for good.
From there, Villanova drove the length of the field and scored a touchdown to go up 14-0. The College never came within a possession again.
There are clear positives that the Tribe can take from this game. Villanova might be the best team in the country, and a loss to the Wildcats on the road is certainly excusable. Furthermore, for the majority of the contest, the College actually outplayed Villanova, proving that from a talent standpoint, the squad belongs among the FCS elite.
But when two top teams meet, the game is almost always going to come down to a handful of plays that will decide the game. Villanova played mistake-free football Saturday and made sure that each of those decisive plays went their way.
Laycock will not be happy with the weekend’s result; but Tribe fans can be sure that he will make adjustments to cut down on those mistakes.
The College got a wake-up call this week. But a regular season contest at one of the best teams in the country is an ideal opportunity to learn something about your team and improve.
The Tribe has plenty of tough games remaining, but they will likely enter them mentally tougher than before.
The FCS is not the BCS, and a single loss does not ruin a season.
It certainly won’t ruin the College’s.