The time is nigh. Two days to be exact, and that means we’re now under the 48-hour mark until your William & Mary Tribe heads north to take on its little brother, UVA. Little brother, you may ask? Let’s not soon forget that the entire reason UVA exists is due to a certain alum of the great College of William & Mary. Who is this person you ask? Oh, just Thomas Jefferson. Yes, it’s football season, and yes, we’re already in mid-season smack-talk form. Roll Tribe Roll.
We at the W&M Sports Blog recently collaborated with a Wahoo (can you believe it?!), getting some great inside scoop from thee UVA sports blog’s own Paul Wiley. If you haven’t already checked it out, we highly suggest you do! But because it’s the week of the Season Opener, and because you can never have too many articles about Tribe football, we had to create our very own preview article for the contest (as we traditionally do for each game of the year). Read up on the Cavaliers, see our suggested keys to victory, and we’ll see you in Charlottesville!
Most will recall the Tribe’s victory over UVA in 2009 as one of the team’s most memorable victories in recent memory. But don’t forget that W&M also played UVA more recently than that. In fact, just two seasons ago, the Tribe met the Cavaliers in Scott Stadium for the 2015 Season Opener. And boy, was it a good one. The Green and Gold came out firing in the first quarter, scoring on a very well executed five-play, two-minute drive via a Steve Cluley bomb to DeVonte Dedmon. Cluley tossed a 41-yard strike into the end zone that bounced off of a UVA cornerback and into the belly of a falling Dedmon.
In the second quarter, the Tribe found itself in a 4th and three situation on the Cavalier 37 yard line. Too far out to attempt a field goal, and just close enough to the sticks to go for it, Laycock kept his forces on the field. On the play, Cluley rolled to his right, and found no one open. Looking back to his left at the last second he found a wide open Andrew Caskin, who caught the ball and sprinted into the end zone. At the half, UVA fans were sweating, as the Cavaliers held a very narrow 21-10 lead.
After half, the Tribe was outscored 0-14 in the third quarter–a stat that would eventually prove too much to overcome. However, the Green and Gold would not go down without a fight. W&M would get the ball back after forcing a safety by way of a DeAndre Houston-Carson blocked UVA punt inside the Cavaliers’ own end zone. W&M then drove down the field on a 10 play 49 yard drive, resulting in another touchdown pass to DeVonte Dedmon, his second of the game–Tribe 29 UVA 35. As the final minutes dwindled down, the Tribe defense yet again held the Cavaliers, giving the W&M offense one more chance. Down just 6 points and driving inside two minutes, the Tribe needed a touchdown and an extra point to win it. However, after driving down all the way to the Virginia 30 yard line, the offense failed to convert on a 4th and 10, ultimately leaving Scott Stadium with a tough loss. Ultimately, this valiant effort would portend great things to come for the Tribe in the 2015 season, as the team would eventually reach the FCS Playoffs for the first time since 2010.
We’ll be honest. This isn’t a great UVA team. The Cavaliers finished 2-10 last year in Head Coach Bronco Mendenhall‘s first year with the Hoos (including an embarrassing 37-20 Season Opener loss to the CAA’s Richmond Spiders). At this stage in the game, their depth remains an issue, as many young players will need to step up if Mendenhall’s boys look to procure 6 wins and take part in a bowl game this season. This season, the Cavaliers should be better (they can’t get much worse), with some impressive talent in individual pockets across the roster. The defensive unit looks to improve this season, with at least one highly skilled player at each level, including the safety, linebacker, and defensive end position groups. However, this is still a defense that finished 12 out of 14 in the ACC last year, allowing a staggering 34.5 points per game to opponents.
Offensively last season, the Cavaliers didn’t fare much better. The team finished 12 in the ACC in Total Offense, averaging just 20.6 points per game. Digging into the team’s offensive stats a bit deeper, just 33% of their yards came on the ground last season (844 yards), which was the lowest rushing yards total in the ACC. Alternatively, the Cavs passed for 1,751 yards last season, 11th in the ACC. The offense will need to improve mightily if UVA wishes to go bowling this season.
- Senior QB Kurt Benkert (#6): The rising senior finished last season in Charlottesville with 2,552 passing yards, 21 TDs, and 11 INTs. Frequently pressed into action when behind, Benkert finished with a surprisingly solid 21 to 11 TD:INT ratio. He was a transfer from East Carolina, following an ACL tear the year prior, and last season was, in essence, Benkert’s first ever as a collegiate starter. The QB is also said to have played a good portion of last year with a nagging shoulder injury. With a healed shoulder and full recovery from the aforementioned ACL tear, Benkert looks to end his collegiate career with his best statistical season yet. In a recent interview, he noted that he has been working on taking what the defense gives him, and focusing on reducing risks. As such, we expect the Cavaliers to work the short pass/screen game, and lean on the run as often as they can against the Tribe on Saturday.
- Junior HB Olamide Zaccheaus (#4): Zaccheaus is an athletic freak that the Cavaliers will use in multiple ways on Saturday. Think of him as an “Offensive Weapon” — much like the Kansas City Chief’s Tyreek Hill. Last season, Zaccheaus saw action in all 12 of UVA’s games with seven starts. He finished with 51 receptions for 584 yards and a team-high seven receiving touchdowns. As an interesting side note, he finished with five catches for 75 yards and one touchdown in the season opener against Richmond last season. Look for QB Kurt Benkert to involve #4 early and often on gameday.
- ILB Micah Kiser (#53) & FS Quinn Blanding (#3): Kiser, a linebacker, and Blanding, a free safety, both finished the year on the All-ACC First Team — no small accomplishment in its own right. Kiser led the entire ACC in total tackles, finishing with 94, including 4 sacks. His running mate Blanding didn’t finish far behind, checking in with the 3rd-most total tackles, with 81. Both of these players averaged over 10 tackles a game last year, and are absolute ball hawks on the field. #53 will look to shut down the Tribe’s run game, and Blanding will be there to scoop up the rest. The W&M offense must locate these two on the field prior to each play on Saturday if they wish to move the ball efficiently.
- RB Jordan Ellis (#1): To take pressure off of Benkert this season, the Cavaliers will look to run the ball much more than they did last year when they finished with the lowest rushing yardage total in the ACC. With the departures of now-Baltimore Raven Taquan “Smoke” Mizzell and graduated senior Albert Reid, Ellis finds himself in a fortuitous situation. Known for his hard work, Ellis was honored by his teammates with the first choice in this year’s annual jersey number selection. And as a side note, the then-freshman Ellis actually led the Cavaliers in rushing yards against the Tribe in 2015, finishing with 5 carries for 50 yards (10.0 avg) and 1 TD. W&M will need to stop the 5’11” 215 pound running back, and shift the pressure back on Benkert this Saturday.
- Stop the Run and Force the Pass: Throughout this weekend’s contest, the Cavaliers will likely look to boost their QB’s confidence. As has been an emphasis of theirs this entire offseason, the Hoos are looking to become more efficient with the ball this season. This means running it more, connecting on shorter, more efficient passes, and moving the chains. In the 2015 W&M vs. UVA game, one of the biggest struggles the Tribe experienced was in the screen/short passing game. Smoke Mizzell, a running back, finished the contest with 5 catches for 123 yards and 1 TD — the vast majority of his damage coming after the catch. Playing on its toes, the W&M defense will not only need to shut down the run against a lackluster UVA O-Line, but will also have to shut down the screen game. Don’t forget that the Tribe finished with one of the best defensive backfields in the entire FCS last season. If the defense can force Benkert to throw the ball downfield, and if Aaron Swinton and the boys can come away with one or two interceptions, it would mean the world for a Tribe team looking to pull the upset.
- Cover on Special Teams: Another issue the Tribe encountered against UVA in 2015 was on special teams, and primarily on punt/kick return coverage. Every time the Tribe kicked or punted the ball, we held our breath to see what would happen next. The special teams unit was woefully bad at defending against the big play ability of Virginia’s speedy returners, as UVA averaged an eye popping 41.3 yards per punt return on three punts. One of those resulted in a 74-yard touchdown return in the third quarter, again, the quarter that UVA outscored W&M 0-14. This cannot happen again on Saturday, and the Tribe will need to swarm to the football to minimize big returns.
- Get to the Quarterback: The Tribe was incredibly poor at getting to the quarterback last season. In fact, the team finished at the bottom of the CAA with paltry 3 sacks on the entire year. This number has to change, beginning with the Season Opener. We know that UVA lacks depth across both its offensive and defensive lines, which leaves a golden opportunity for W&M to get pressure up front. If the Tribe can clog the holes and get to the quarterback, overwhelming Benkert, we like our chances.
- Maintain Consistent Quarterback Play: Who is our quarterback?! Recent rumors out of camp suggest that junior Tommy McKee and sophomore Brandon Battle are in some kind of timeshare, with true freshman Shon Mitchell still a threat to receive playing time. We at the W&M Sports Blog are betting that McKee gets the nod (due to his advanced knowledge of the playbook), with the potential for both Battle and/or Mitchell to see playing time as well, depending how the game goes. Whoever gets time under center will need to minimize turnovers and get the ball in the hands of the Tribe’s stacked receiving corps. Move those chains!
Viewing: When and Where
Time: 3:30 PM
Location: Scott Stadium (Charlottesville, VA)
Watch: Streaming on ESPN 3
W&M Sports Blog Prediction
Tribe 27 UVA 23
Yes, call us homers. Call us crazy. But what we do know is that William & Mary has performed incredibly well under the bright lights in recent memory, especially against FBS teams that don’t end up doing well in their division. Need we remind you of near wins against UVA (2015), West Virginia (2013), and Maryland (2012)? We don’t think we need to remind you what happened in 2009 — still a very dark day for Hoos fans. Many pieces will have to fall in to place for W&M to make this happen, but as you know, we always believe. Get your popcorn ready, and let’s get ready to rock Scott Stadium on Saturday. See you there. LET’S GO TRIBE!!!