Football: Back in gear

Down 7-3 at the half, William and Mary seemed on the verge of surrendering its third straight Homecoming loss. The Tribe offense had racked up just 131 yards of total offense through the first two quarters and coughed up three fumbles. The defense, however, had been phenomenal.

“I thought the game should have been over in the second quarter,” James Madison head coach Mickey Matthews said. “We had tremendous field position. You have to credit the William and Mary defense.”

If the defense kept the Tribe in the game, the special teams lit the spark that carried the College (5-3, 2-2 CAA) to a 17-7 Homecoming victory over conference and in-state rival James Madison (5-3, 2-2 CAA).

With 7 minutes, 39 seconds left in the third quarter, the Dukes lined up for a 31-yard field goal attempt, primed to take a 10-3 lead after recovering a Tribe fumble. Never again would the game look so optimistic for the Dukes.

Junior cornerback DeAndre Houston-Carson rocketed off the end of the right side of the line and got his hand up just in time to block Cameron Starke’s effort. Senior safety Jerome Couplin dove on the ball to give the Tribe offense an opportunity to seize the lead. On his first possession after coming in for injured senior Michael Graham, senior quarterback Brent Caprio led a rousing 77-yard touchdown drive.

The College offense displayed two diametric sides Saturday: the one with Graham at the controls, and the one with Caprio. After manning the helm for the first 36 minutes of the contest, Graham sputtered en route to 92 yards on 11 of 22 passing performance, which included a fumble. Caprio, on the other hand, threw for an efficient 88 yards on six of eight passing and a touchdown after entering the game midway through the third quarter.

“I thought [Caprio] came in and was very poised, handled the ball, made the throws that he had to [and] dumped it off a couple of times,” head coach Jimmye Laycock said.

Even though the offense’s inconsistency allowed James Madison to win the field position battle time and again, the Tribe defense played masterfully throughout. Besides two 40-yard gains in the second quarter, which led to the Dukes’ sole score, the Dukes offense found nothing easy. The College excelled under pressure and was resilient against the unfavorable field position. James Madison was held to just five conversions on 17 third downs, failing to score on two red-zone trips.

Tribe defensive linemen consistently menaced the Dukes’ quarterback Michael Birdsong in the pocket, garnering three sacks, while also forcing numerous throwaways and rushed pass attempts. One such rushed pass attempt turned into seven points for the Tribe.

Sophomore safety Jared Velasquez showed off his quickness in an electric interception-return for a touchdown, rousing raucous cheers from the full-capacity Homecoming crowd. After snagging Birdsong’s errant pass at his own 10-yard line, Velasquez tore down the right side of the field at a dizzying speed, distancing and outmaneuvering would-be tacklers.  Velasquez’s 90-yard interception-return was good for the second-longest in College program history and helped solidify the Tribe’s advantage.

“I was definitely thinking ‘score,’” Velasquez said. “I saw all that green in front of me and started running.”

Following the injuries of the College’s top two rushers, there was an absence of experienced tail backs for Saturday’s game: a profound challenge for a team that has gained more cumulative yards on the ground than in the air. Junior Jarrell Cooper bore the majority of the handoffs, turning in a respectable effect – 98 yards on 28 carries. Freshman counterpart Kendall Anderson wasn’t nearly as composed, fumbling twice on just nine carries.

“I thought Jarrell did alright,” Laycock said. “We tell all our players, ‘practice like a starter, prepare like a starter, because it doesn’t take much for you to be a starter sometime,’ and that’s what happened.”

While there is uncertainty concerning whether sophomore Mikal Abdul-Saboor will be back for next week’s contest, Laycock implied the tail back’s injury, which Abdul-Saboor sustained in the Tribe’s victory over Penn two weeks ago, would not keep him out for too long. If Abdul-Saboor does return, he may be accompanied by Caprio in the backfield, although Laycock has not confirmed a starter for next weekend’s game yet.

In a rare moment of public enthusiasm, Laycock was visibly enlivened by his team’s performance in the midseason victory.

“I hope you guys enjoyed it,” Laycock said. “I know I did.”

The Tribe hosts No. 22 New Hampshire Saturday at 1:30 p.m. in a pivotal CAA contest that would, with a win, lift the Tribe above .500 in the conference and most likely into the top 25 rankings.



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