Commentary: Playcalling shouldn’t shy from creative passing scheme

William and Mary had no time to wallow as it prepared for Saturday’s matchup against Delaware. After tough losses to New Hampshire and Villanova sent the College spiraling from its No. 10 ranking, the Tribe likely has to win its final five games to earn a spot on the Football Championship Series bracket. With no margin for error, the College reverted to its standard procedure: power-running and fierce defense.

It’s hard to argue with the results. The College won 31-17, piling up 245 rushing yards in the process. Junior cornerback DeAndre Houston-Carson finished with an interception and a blocked punt, and the Tribe didn’t commit a turnover. It was no surprise when head coach Jimmye Laycock praised the game as a complete performance in his post game conference, because the Tribe performed well in most facets.

The win was exactly what the College needed. Now, fans have a reason for optimism. The Tribe’s only Colonial Athletic Association losses came against New Hampshire and Villanova — two schools comfortably atop the conference standings. In its final four games, the College faces James Madison on the road, Elon at home, Towson on the road and Richmond at home. The toughest matchups on the Tribe’s schedule are complete, and the remaining games are winnable. Above all else, Saturday’s win showed that the Tribe’s season is definitely not over.

That said, the College’s win left some questions unanswered, particularly on offense. Sophomore quarterback Steve Cluley completed just five of 10 passes for 47 yards before halftime, and 29 of those yards came on a single completion to freshman receiver DeVonte Dedmon. The anemic passing attack stymied the College’s entire offense in the first half, and the team’s only touchdown drive came on a short field thanks to Houston-Carson’s blocked punt. The defense stepped up to preserve the Tribe’s 10-7 halftime lead, but the College’s offense was weak enough in the first half that it could have cost the team more against an explosive opponent.

This isn’t a criticism of Cluley. The potential he’s shown throughout the season peaked  in the match against Villanova, when he shredded the Wildcats for 350 yards and three touchdowns. In that game, the Tribe put him in the best position to succeed by using him on multiple play action passes and deep attempts. Cluley also dropped back to pass 29 times on either first or second down, an aggressive playcalling approach that kept Villanova’s defense off-balance. The hope against Delaware was that the Tribe would build on the approach that allowed Cluley to shine as a passer.

However, the College appeared to abandon that offensive creativity and aggression. In the Tribe’s rough first half, most of Cluley’s dropbacks were in obvious passing situations — such as on third and long or at the end of the half — where Delaware could blitz freely. As a result, Cluley had little time to throw on several plays and couldn’t get into a rhythm as a passer. In addition, the College ran passing plays on just 12 first and second downs in the entire game, situations where it can utilize play action plays that Cluley executes so effectively. To see the Tribe neglect the game plan that worked so well against Villanova was disappointing.

But that lack of innovation didn’t matter Saturday. The offensive line did a stellar job blocking for junior running back Mikal Abdul-Saboor, who dominated with 198 yards on 37 carries. Abdul-Saboor’s outstanding performance — and the work of the College’s defense — erased every blemish on the Tribe’s slow first half. Saturday was a great win. But that doesn’t mean the coaching staff should neglect an aggressive offensive approach.

For now, the College’s FCS playoff dream is alive and well. The Tribe deserves credit for shaking off two tough losses and playing well Saturday. But when the College leaves the friendly confines of Zable Stadium and hits the road twice in the next three weeks, it will want its creative passing schemes.

Otherwise, the Tribe might come home disappointed.



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