William and Mary was losing momentum with every second.
With two-and-half quarters that were every bit as dominant as even the most optimistic fans could have dreamt, the lead over visiting top-ranked Villanova was comfortable and, as it proved, insurmountable in the seventh-ranked Tribe's 31-24 hang-on-and-please-get-the-onside-kick upset.
The wily Wildcats scratched back from a 28-3 deficit to within 31-17 with seven minutes left.
The Tribe's first-down run on the ensuing drive was stuffed.
Zero yards. Zero chance of running the ball against a Villanova team that finally was showing the emotion that William and Mary did from the opening kickoff.
William and Mary coach Jimmye Laycock put the ball in junior quarterback Michael Paulus' hands.
A 7-yard pass to Ryan Moody. A 5-yard run on a nice bootleg on third-and-3. A 20-yard completion to Chase Hill on a rope.
Sure, three plays later, Paulus overthrew his target badly for an interception that set up Villanova's final 47-yard Hail Mary touchdown drive.
But it speaks volumes that Laycock trusted his quarterback. A quarterback making his first career start in place of injured Mike Callahan. A quarterback who transferred from an ACC school ( North Carolina) but certainly does not have a thorough understanding of the 31-year veteran coach's offense.
When Paulus, after Jonthan Grimes recovered the onside kick, took a final knee, there was a moment of relief.
But a moment to remember, nonetheless.
Paulus isn't personally familiar with the heartache that Villanova has caused William and Mary. The Wildcats had won six straight in the series, including a 14-13 decision in the national semifinals en route to last year's national championship.
He certainly heard the history all week as he prepared to pick up where he left off, when he came in for Callahan and led two fourth-quarter touchdown drives in the 24-21 thrilling win at Maine last Saturday.
"I'm excited about it," Paulus said. "I'm really happy to help us win this one, because I know how much it means to everybody."
Paulus finished 20-of-28 for 211 yards. Those two picks stand out.
But so did his play early as he completed 12 of his first 16 passes for 142 yards, set up the first two of Grimes' three touchdown runs and set the tone for the rest of the day.
Paulus threw completions for first downs on third-and-3 and fourth-and-2 on the drive that ended with Grimes' 8-yard dash for a 7-0 lead with 6:25 left in the first quarter.
On the Tribe's next drive, on third-and-12 from his own 31, Paulus scrambled to bide time and connected with Alex Gottlieb for 14 yards and a big first down.
It was the first play that came to his mind after the game.
"It's kind of been my rep, since I've been in high school and in college, that I show so many flashes and then I'll do something boneheaded," Paulus said. "It's something I'm working on. Aside from those two picks today, I think I threw some good balls. We moved the chains. There weren't five touchdown passes or anything like that, but I was glad about how I went through my reads."
Four plays after his scramble and completion, Paulus hit Ryan Moody for a 36-yard completion to the 4-yard line.
Another short Grimes run and the Tribe was rolling along.
"I thought he executed pretty well," Laycock said. "A few things here and there, but I thought he was very much in control of what was going on out there."
Villanova coach Andy Talley said his Wildcats did not play "Villanova football." He pointed to their lack of "zip" early. And he pointed to the numerous players who were out with injuries.
The list of injured includes CAA preseason offensive and special teams player of the year Matt Szczur. But unless Szczur was going to play in the defensive secondary, it wouldn't have mattered much against Paulus.
Talley certainly was impressed.
"He did a really good job of running the offense," Talley said. "They had good protection and gave him time to throw.
"I like him very much."
He's not the only one.
Nick Mathews is the sports editor of the Daily Press. He can be reached at email@example.com or 247-4962.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun