Commentary: College falls just short, again

When the lights shut off in Zable Stadium and Richmond finished off William and Mary’s playoff bid for the second consecutive year, I can’t say I felt positive about the season’s conclusion. From a big picture standpoint, the parallels between this season and last year’s campaign stood out.

Once again, the College opened its season with wins over weak opponents such as Hampton and Lafayette. Once again, the Tribe suffered tough losses in the midseason but shook off those defeats with a late season run to the cusp of the Football Championship Subdivision postseason. Once again, the Tribe accumulated one loss too many, with the deathblow coming from Richmond on the season’s final day.

To its immense credit, the College performed admirably against Richmond this year. Though last year’s battle ended 31-21 in Richmond’s favor, and this year’s finished 34-20, anybody who watched both games knows that this year’s team came closer to winning. But I don’t know if I’ll remember that as time passes. I’ll probably remember that for my last two years at the College, the Tribe just couldn’t beat Richmond when its playoff fate depended on it.

It’s bizarre that the 2013 and 2014 Tribe seasons ended the same way, because the teams were so different. This year, the Tribe outscored last year’s team by 51 points. It featured a fiercer offense, powered by the undying energy of junior running back Mikal Abdul-Saboor and the consistent brilliance of senior receiver Tre McBride. But it also fielded a defense that sorely missed graduated safety Jerome Couplin and lost superb junior cornerback DeAndre Houston-Carson for its final two games. The unit surrendered 272 points this year after allowing only168 last season.

They celebrated the victories humbly and took the losses hard, but they never surrendered until the final whistle sounded. They deserved to compete in the FCS postseason, and they gave everything they had to get there. It just didn’t work out.

Houston-Carson’s injury added to a string of disappointments that partially defined this season. Houston-Carson was a crucial defensive player, a shutdown cornerback who allowed the Tribe so much creativity in its pass coverage. His presence was sorely missed against Richmond. The College also suffered devastating injuries to its offensive line, which was particularly glaring as sophomore quarterback Steve Cluley faced blitz after blitz against the Spiders. Of its opening day starters, only freshman guard Connor Hilland made it to the season finale.  Had the College not lost so many key contributors, perhaps it would’ve beaten Richmond last weekend.

The words “if only” appear all over the story of the College’s season: If only the College had mustered one final stop in a 35-31 Homecoming loss to Villanova. If only the Tribe had hung on to its 11 point lead in Harrisonburg against James Madison. If only the College, depleted as it was by injuries, had managed to play turnover-free football against Richmond rather than surrendering the ball three times and allowing the Spiders to gain the upper hand.

I’ll always remember those near misses, the tiny gaps between victory and defeat, between postseason and elimination. But despite all the disappointment, the College kept absorbing the back breaks and blitzing forward.

I’ll remember how Cluley grew as a passer over the course of the season. Even with a decimated offensive line, Cluley threw for 240 yards and two touchdowns against Richmond, a sign of how far he came over the course of this season. Cluley is the immediate future of the Tribe at the crucial quarterback position, and his progress this year is a great sign.

I’ll remember Abdul-Saboor, who faced heavy focus from opposing defenses all year and still had a historic season. His 115.1 yards per game led the Colonial Athletic Association and his 1317 rushing yards are the third highest single season tally in Tribe history. Abdul-Saboor molded himself into the College’s unflappable workhorse, a strikingly durable player who kept grinding out first downs as his offensive line crumbled and opposing defenses closed in on him.

I’ll remember all the Tribe seniors, who anchored the team on both sides of the ball. They celebrated the victories humbly and took the losses hard, but they never surrendered until the final whistle sounded. They deserved to compete in the FCS postseason, and they gave everything they had to get there. It just didn’t work out.

There’s no telling what will come next season for the Tribe. The team must replace playmakers all over the roster, and hopefully key players such as Cluley, Abdul-Saboor, Houston-Carson and junior linebacker Luke Rhodes will lead the College in another competitive year. But for now, I keep coming back to those seniors who ended their Tribe careers without a playoff appearance in four years.

I will remember watching them compete, and I will remember that I wished better for their last ride with the College. I hope they can be proud of what they did here.


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