Season Opener Preview: William and Mary vs. Lafayette

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[via espn.com]
FOOTBALL IS BACK!!! In just a couple days, the Tribe will embark on its first game of the season against the Lafayette Leopards. Tribe fans are anxious to see how this season will play out, as the Tribe looks to break their 5 year FCS playoff drought. That’s right, I said FIVE year playoff drought. It’s time. This week’s matchup is a battle of two old-school football teams, with Lafayette entering its 134th season and William and Mary its 123rd. But we’re fairly certain a Tribe can fend off some Leopards. Let’s dive in.

Last meeting with the Tribe: In this year’s season opener, W&M takes on Lafayette for the fourth season in a row. The Tribe has won the previous 3 contests, and will look to take a 3-1 overall series lead this coming Saturday. Last year, the Lafayette Leopards came into Williamsburg and got out to a shocking 19-9 lead going halftime over the 13th-ranked William and Mary.

The Tribe eventually woke up and posted an impressive and dominant second half in which W&M outscored Lafayette 24-0, allowing just 54 total yards in the process. While William and Mary could not seem to stop Lafayette’s running back Ross Scheuerman (20 carries for 160 yards, including a 72 yard touchdown run), the Leopards thankfully lost him to graduation– good news for the Tribe.

The Tribe defensive backs better be on their game for this one, as Lafayette junior quarterback #7 Drew Reed is no pushover. Last season against W&M, he went 22/29 passing with 217 yards and a touchdown, adding one touchdown on the ground. In his second year starting at QB, Reed will look to have a big season for the Leopards, starting in game one.

Lafayette defensive back Matt Smalley, #24, reacts after intercepting a pass as teammate DeOliver Davis, #21, stands by in the fourth quarter of their win over rival Lehigh at Goodman Stadium on Nov. 23, 2013. (lehighvalleylive file photo)
Lafayette defensive back Matt Smalley, #24 will look to make his presence known in this year’s season opener, building off of last year’s strong campaign. (lehighvalleylive file photo)

Lafayette’s Players to Watch: Lafayette had six players chosen to the 2015 Preseason All-Patriot League Football Team, 4 on defense and 2 on offense. The Leopords were picked to finish 4th in the Patriot league; funny enough, the Tribe was also picked to finish 4th in its conference, the CAA.

It might be hard for Tribe QB Steve Cluley and his very young, inexperienced receiving corps to get going on Saturday, as this Lafayette team will be led by its talented and experienced starting cornerbacks, #24 Matt Smalley and #1 Jared Roberts. Both are going into their senior seasons, and have racked up many preseason accolades– especially Smalley.

For the second straight season, Smalley earned multiple spots on the Preseason All-Patriot League Team, as both a defensive back and a return specialist. Last season, Smalley started 10 games for the Leopards, and finished third on the team in tackles (61) with five tackles for loss, two sacks, and 11 pass break ups. Smalley is a two time All-Patriot League First-Team selection, and looks to lead the Leopards defensive unit this season.

Equally impressive to his defensive statistics, Smalley is also a stud returner, leading the Patriot League with 23.5 yards per kick return. In just his sophomore season, Smalley finished 8th overall in the nation on kickoff returns, averaging 29.6 yards per return. Additionally in July, Smalley was named to the 2015 STATS FCS Preseason All-America Team, securing a spot on the defensive third team.

Opposite Smalley is senior corner Jared Roberts. Roberts is a tall corner, checking in at 6’2” and 205 pounds. He was a All-Patriot League First-Team selection last season, and finished finished fourth on the team in tackles with 57, including four tackles for loss, one sack, and 2 interceptions.

Roberts transitioned from strong safety to corner just last season, and will look to make an even greater impact this year in his senior season. He figures to be a physical corner who will test opposing Tribe receivers such as Daniel Kuzjak and Christian Reeves.
*Side note: it appears as though the Tribe’s top receiver, DeVonte Dedmon, will be out for the opener with an apparent illness; he is not listed on this week’s two-deep depth chart. With the loss of Tre McBride and Sean Ballard to graduation last year, this not good news for the Tribe. Let’s hope the new guys (plus TE Andrew Caskin) can spread the field and get open for Cluley on Saturday.*

On offense, the Leopards pose a strong offensive line to keep that will work to keep the Tribe’s pass rush in check. Their line features two Preseason All-Patriot League Team selections in senior tackle #68 Nick Zataveski and junior guard #67 Connor Staudle.

These two lineman will look to block for junior quarterback Drew Reed. As previously mentioned, Reed went 22/29 passing with 217 yards and a touchdown, and also added a touchdown on the ground in his last meeting with the Tribe. Unfortunately for Reed, that was his best game of the season; he went on to start 8 games last season, missing 3 due to shoulder and foot injuries. Reed ended the season with 1,022 yards passing, 7 touchdowns, and 9 interceptions.

Even still, the Tribe should not take Reed lightly. He is the single-season completion percentage record holder at Lafayette (72.5% in 2013), and needs just 79 more passing yards to move into Lafayette’s all-time top 10. If last season’s contest vs. W&M is any indication, Reed is certainly capable of popping off a big game at any moment.

William & Mary's Isaiah Stephens tackles Lafayette quarterback Drew Reed as he throws the ball away during Saturday's game at Zable Stadium. (Jonathon Gruenke, Daily Press)
Isaiah Stephens wraps up Drew Reed a season ago. Let’s hope to see a lot of this on Saturday. (Jonathon Gruenke, Daily Press)

Tribe Keys to Victory:

  • Good quarterback play. Steve Cluley will need to be sharp in this game. Lafayette’s defensive backfield is no joke, with experienced corners in Smalley and Roberts. Last season, Cluley showed his dual threat abilities against Lafayette, rushing for 87 yards and 2 touchdowns while also passing for 141 yards and a touchdown. We would like to see Cluley continue to flash his dual threat ability in this one and keep Lafayette’s defense guessing.
  • Tote the beast. W&M has run the ball very well in its two recent victories against Lafayette, averaging 227.5 yards per game on the ground (5.4 yards per carry). Last season, the Tribe rushed for 210 yards, and that was without the presence of first team All-CAA selection Mikal Abdul-Saboor. The Tribe, without many weapons currently at the receiver position, will have to run the ball a lot in this game. We can’t think of a better offensive strategy than toting the best running back in the CAA early and often against a weaker defensive line.
  • Get pressure early and often. The Tribe has a very talented defensive backfield, including what may be the best safety duo in the CAA with recently-converted Deandre Houston-Carson and stalwart Jared Velasquez. On top of that, the Tribe features battle-tested starting CBs in Trey Reed and Aaron Swinton. This presence in the defensive backfield will hopefully give the D-line the time they need to get to the quarterback. While the interior of the D-line is led by studs in Isaiah Stephens and Tyler Claytor, it is relatively unknown who will fill the hole left at the defensive end position. Either way, it is important that the Tribe defense gets to Lafayette quarterback Drew Reed early and often.

Viewing: 6:00 PM EST on ESPN 3

Prediction: Tribe 38 Lafayette 17
We feel that the Tribe will be too much for the Leopards in this one. Lafayette finished with a record of just 5-6 last season in the Patriot League. After returning the entire offensive line and the best running back in the conference, we think the Tribe offense will be too much for the Leopards in this one. Not to mention, it is now Steve Cluley’s second year in the offense, and he had a whole offseason to improve and further control the huddle. Add that to a Tribe defense that returns a majority of their starters, and you get a scary prediction for Lafayette. If the Tribe can pull off a win here, it will be its first win on opening day in quite some time. ROLL TRIBE ROLL!!
Check out the official game notes here!

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