Debating William & Mary, sports and culture since 2011. Updated every Wednesday.

Bushwhacked

In Football, William & Mary on September 4, 2011 at 1:45 pm

It was just over five minutes into the third quarter when sheer and utter panic began to set in for the Tribe faithful. Or, rather, it would have if the Tribe faithful were of the type prone to hysteriatrics. William and Mary fans happen to be a more stoic bunch, a trait that will be sorely needed in the aftermath of Saturday’s 40-3 loss in Charlottesville.

It’s been three years since the Tribe received a shellacking comparative to that laid by the Virginia Cavaliers. That previous iteration saw the squad go into James Madison’s Bridgeforth Stadium and get bushwhacked 48-24. That game took place before back to back playoff appearances and numerous high profile wins raised the stature of the College’s football program, but all those honors mattered little at Scott Stadium. Bushwhacked still summed up the result.

So with that in mind, the matter at hand now turns to what to make of the Tribe’s demoralizing start to the season. The proper attitude was best described by linebacker Dante Cook after the game, “They always say it’s not as good as you think, but it’s never as bad as you think.”

Mike London trotted out a team that was far improved from the squad the Tribe easily handled in 2009. More importantly, the Cavaliers played with a chip on their shoulder, coming out and hitting the College with an early intensity that never faded. Virginia was a step faster, a tad bigger, and seemingly drastically more motivated in this version of the interstate rivalry.

And the Tribe never competed. Their first 11 drives ended in eight punts and three turnovers, with the longest consuming 27 yards. More importantly, none kept the defense off the field for more than 2:20 of game time. An exhausted William and Mary defense featured well in the first half, limiting the damage to a 13-0 deficit despite remaining on the field for over 21 of the opening 30 minutes and finding themselves defending repeatedly short fields. But they tired drastically in the latter period, stopping only one Cavalier drive and allowing 27 points.

The contest was won—as football games, despite their intricacies, so often happen to be—at the line of scrimmage. The College’s offensive line was never able to open any running lanes against a solid BCS front-four, while the squad’s pass rush could be considered anemic at best. The Cavaliers racked up four touchdowns and 240 yards rushing on the ground, while the Tribe countered with a grand total of 48. No team, short of having Tom Brady’s Playstation offense of 2007, is going to overcome those numbers.

Simply put, the Tribe ran into a hungry, motivated, and talented ACC team, a squad that, if London continues at his current rate, might even reach mediocrity in the middling ACC.

But despite the doomsday result, there is little reason for despair. Principally, the College emerged from this contest in significantly better shape than from last season’s bruising 21-17 last-minute defeat against a North Carolina squad far better than Virginia. While solace could be taken in the competitiveness of that matchup in Chapel Hill, the game saw the squad lose it’s top two quarterbacks, tailback Jonathan Grimes, tight end Alex Gottlieb, and numerous others to injury; comparatively, the Tribe left Charlottesville virtually scot-free.

And that is a significant factor for an early season game that, while the potential for a victory existed, was always going to be difficult to win. The loss counts the same as if it had come on a last-second field goal, and if the College entered the season with any pretensions from last year’s CAA championship and no. 2 playoff seeding, they were certainly left on the Scott Stadium field. While there are plenty of concerns, and a win would have been desirable, the true season is anything but damaged.

Now for a more in-depth look at a few topics:

The Passing Game

Thirty four attempts resulting in 11 completions, 121 yards and an interception. Little else needs to be said. A demoralized Mike Paulus looked shell-shocked after the game, conceding that he and his receivers were never able to get into a rhythm in what might be the understatement of the young decade. Jimmye Laycock used three quarterbacks in a futile attempt to “just put somebody else in there and let them try,” but to no avail. “If we got the ball back again, I was going to try somebody else,” he said after the game.

Many will put the blame squarely on Paulus, who certainly did little to acquit himself. He was frequently off target and seemed skittish, while demonstrating little mobility in the pocket. His first quarter overthrow of Ryan Woolfolk, with nothing but FieldTurf between his receiver and the end zone, set the tone early on. But a Paulus was hindered by a receiving corps that displayed a complete inability to create separation between themselves and the defense. This was not the passing game that picked apart a North Carolina secondary that sent several guys to the NFL last season. With the exception of tight ends Gottlieb and Nolan Kearney, the Tribe wideouts were invisible. In fact, D.J. Mangas was the only one to even catch a pass, as eight of the squad’s 11 completions went to two tight ends, two tailbacks and a fullback.

Laycock did use both Brent Caprio and Michael Graham briefly. Caprio completed a nice throw on his first attempt, but ended that drive with an ugly interception. Graham was the only Tribe quarterback to look competent, but got his looks in garbage time against the second team defense.

After the game, Laycock did quash any notion of a quarterback controversy, saying that Paulus would start at VMI next week. But the larger problem is the receiving corps, which seemed to badly miss the loss of Chase Hill. Converted quarterback D.J. Mangas is the only player who looks remotely dangerous there, and one has to wonder about the future contributions of physically talented but enigmatic C.J. Thomas.

Help may be on the way, however. Sources connected to the program say that junior Ryan Moody, a talented and versatile receiver who has the potential to be All-CAA when healthy, could return by week three or four from offseason surgery. That would potentially put him back on the field by the Tribe’s next meaningful contest, Sept. 24 against JMU; consistent snaps there by Moody would transform the passing game. True freshman Tre McBride, who has received rave reviews in practice thus far, is also developing at a quick pace, and could turn into a key contributor as the season progresses.

Keith McBride

One of the few bright spots was the play of Navy transfer and redshirt freshman Keith McBride. A highly regarded tailback out of a Memphis high school, McBride had been heavily recruited by the Tribe in 2010, before committing to the Academy and heading straight to Annapolis, instead of spending the customary year at NAPS for football recruits. Things didn’t work out and he transferred to Williamsburg in February.

Saturday was the first extended look at McBride for the Tribe, and the results were impressive. The redshirt freshman carried four times for 26 yards, and looked dangerous, showing a good burst and impressive field vision. He was also a ferocious contributor on special teams, taking over for Grimes on kick return duties midway through the game, while racking up several bone-rattling hits.

The play of McBride leads to an even more crowded backfield for the College, a problem that Laycock will gladly take. Grimes is the undeniable standout of course, and has a chance to set nearly every Tribe rushing record this season if he remains healthy, which has never been a concern in the past. But junior Meltoya Jones has long proven himself as a solid, CAA-quality back who is very capable of grinding out yards in relief. Redshirt freshman Darnell Laws has also been impressive in practice and scrimmages and is viewed as a future standout.

That versatility should allow the College to rest Grimes as much as need be and keep him healthy. But also look for Laycock to split Grimes out wide more frequently, a spot where he is dangerous. That could allow the tailback to feature prominently in the passing game, relieving pressure on an underperforming receiving corps.

The Line of Scrimmage

Without question, the biggest difference maker between this year’s contest and the 2009 version was the lack of two NFL draft picks on the defensive line for the College. End Marcus Hyde is a quality player, and the Tribe possesses a great amount of young talent, but the unit was completely overmatched by a very good Virginia offensive line. The squad will certainly not face an offensive front as talented or as imposing again this season, but the key to the Tribe defense will come down to the development of tackles George Beerhalter and Nick Zaremba and end Bryan Stinnie. If those three, in their first years of major contributions can develop at the strong pace that their considerable talents allow, the defense has a chance to be nearly as ferocious as the storied 2009 unit.

Offensively, the line showed their considerable youth, but put in a credible effort against a quick and athletic Virginia defense. While beaten at times, Mike Salazer looked solid in his first game at left tackle, while center James Pagliaro was very good in the middle. Like the defensive line, this is a unit that is extremely gifted, yet young. Saturday’s crash course could prove vital in their development, and expect them to come out with a vengeance against a traditionally undersized VMI defense next week.

Quick Hits

— Great to see linebacker Jake Trantin back on the field after missing the entire 2010 season for family reasons. Trantin is a dynamic player, and if he can return to form, the Tribe linebacking corps will be the CAA’s best in 2011. He and fellow linebacker Dante Cook were largely neutralized by the Cavaliers, but that was as much due to an inability of the defensive line to fill up space and draw blockers than anything else.

— A surprisingly decent performance by Drake Kuhn in a considerable number of punt attempts. The sophomore averaged 45.2 yards on eight punts, knocking one inside the five, while another should perhaps have been downed there as well. He hit a few ducks as well, particularly a third quarter punt that was short and low and allowed a big return. But it was a strong initial showing and the punt game might not be as much of a dropoff from the graduated all-everything David Miller as expected.

— That damn song got obnoxious as hell after every score. I can only imagine how satisfying it must be for the Florida States and Marylands of the world to go into Charlottesville and beat the snot out of the Cavaliers every other year.

— Up: Alex Gottlieb, Keith McBride, Jabrel Mines

— Down: Mike Paulus, every wide receiver

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