Friday night, William and Mary headed to Charlottesville, hoping to upset Virginia. If the Tribe pulled the stunner, it would have been its first win over a Football Bowl Subdivision team since 2009, when it beat — wait for it — the Cavaliers.
Alas, it was not to be. The Cavaliers are a good team and are projected to make some noise in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Even against mediocre or bad FBS teams, it generally takes some semblance of luck to pull off such an upset as a Football Championship Subdivision team like the Tribe. There’s just a gap in skill and athleticism that comes from playing a team in a higher division (unless you’re North Dakota State or James Madison. Hi, Carson Wentz and Jimmy Moreland!)
That isn’t to say that we couldn’t glean anything from the game Friday night — sure, it might not have been the best barometer of where the team is in terms of how successful they could be this season, but it could give us an idea of where this team’s strength comes from.
That, pretty obviously, seems to be the Tribe’s defense. Sure, many people, including me, have focused on the “Go-Go” offense and the breakout potential of certain players. But there will continue to be a learning curve, especially if head coach Mike London and offensive coordinator Brennan Marion continue to trot true freshman quarterback Hollis Mathis out onto the field. While the dividend of that decision will pay off later, the defense may have to step up in the interim. And it looks as if it is up to the challenge.
So far, the Tribe has given up 439.5 yards per game, but that number is skewed by the 511 yards of total offense the Cavaliers gained Friday night. More telling are the eight turnovers that the Tribe has forced through just two games. Currently, the Tribe is first in the country in turnovers forced and tied for second in turnover margin, which also speaks to how good a job the Tribe has done in holding onto the football so far this year.
Sure, turnovers are a fickle thing. But it’s not like defensive coordinator Vincent Brown’s unit feasted only on the Cavaliers’ backups; the Tribe forced three fumbles in a crucial third quarter against Lafayette and picked off the Cavaliers’ starting quarterback Bryce Perkins — who received votes before the season for Preseason ACC Player of the Year — twice.
However, the Tribe does have to show that it can stop people even when the turnovers aren’t coming. The Leopards gained 254 yards through the air in the season opener against the Tribe, which isn’t great when you consider they averaged just over 170 last year. They finished 3-8 last year, and they aren’t projected to be much better this season, although their freshman quarterback, Keegan Shoemaker, has started to break out.
The philosophy of “bend, but don’t break” is dangerous for defenses, as it often relies on a statistical anomaly like a turnover to be the strength of the unit. Giving up truckloads of yards but hoping for an interception or a fumble does not make for winning football. The Tribe defense should know this; they returned about nine starters from a beleaguered but solid group last season.
This week’s home matchup with Colgate should be a good measuring stick for the Tribe. The Raiders have bounced around the bottom of the FCS top-25 poll but have since dropped out as they started their season 0-2. A victory could be a sign that the Tribe, and its defense, is here to compete for a playoff berth.