William and Mary overcomes slow start to shake off Rhode Island

Ben Cottingham knew what was coming.

With Rhode Island facing fourth-and-goal from the 3-yard line with 3:36 to play in the third quarter, the Rams were within six points and threatening to make William and Mary pay for letting them hang around most of the night.

After a timeout, Rhode Island quarterback Steve Probst took the snap, rolled to his right, double-clutched, and fired a pass toward Ty Bynum's chest in the back corner of the end zone.

But Cottingham's hand got there first to break up the pass and help the Tribe hold on for a 26-7 win on Saturday night at Zable Stadium.

"(Defensive coordinator Bob) Shoop actually ran that exact play against me in practice on Thursday," said Cottingham, a senior cornerback who had two pass break-ups coming into the game. "They completed it, but that's because I was expecting the deep fade. This time I was prepared for the fade stop. I don't want to say it was an easy play, but I was prepared for it."

Cottingham's timely memory finally turned back the Rams (2-3, 1-1 Colonial Athletic Association) after William and Mary (5-1, 3-1 CAA) missed three field goals and could only convert two fumbles in Rhode Island territory into three points in a sluggish first three quarters that were as uninspired as last Saturday's first three periods against Villanova were impressive.

Even after Cottingham's break-up, the Tribe couldn't move the ball after taking over on downs, but a roughing-the-kicker call against the Rams – who also ran into punter Tyler Bailey in the first half – gave William and Mary the ball at the 25.

From there, at last, the Tribe, little able to afford a second CAA loss with games against No. 2 Delaware, No. 7 James Madison and No. 11 Richmond (which lost Saturday to New Hampshire, also still on the schedule) put together a sustained drive.

A 97-yard, 19-play, 8:15 drive, to be exact, capped by Courtland Marriner's tackle-shedding, full-spinning, 3-yard run with 10:16 to play that gave the Tribe a 19-7 lead and some much-needed breathing room.

"That was a long drive," William and Mary coach Jimmye Laycock said. " … I was wondering if we were going to get something to pop loose. Nothing was coming easy. We were pounding everything and getting two, three, four yards. Then Courtland did his whirling dervish deal. It looked like he just said he was going to get in the end zone, no matter what."

On the decisive drive, Michael Paulus, who was 21-of-31 for 193 yards and a touchdown in his second start for the Tribe, completed a 17-yard pass to Ryan Moody, who led William and Mary with four catches for 73 yards and had a17-yard TD catch in the second quarter, on third-and-15 from the Rams' 31. Four plays later, Marriner shook a would-be tackler from his ankles and leaped into the end zone.

"I'm taught to play until the end of the whistle, so until I'm on the ground, until they're blowing the whistle calling (the play) dead, I'm going to keep running the ball hard, as long as my legs keep moving," said Marriner, who notched his second touchdown of the season and finished with 53 yards on 10 carries.

Junior tailback Jonathan Grimes had 77 yards on 20 carries as the Tribe, averaging a CAA-low 125 rushing yards per game, finished with 177 on the ground.

Marriner's TD mitigated the sting of earlier missed opportunities for William and Mary.

The first five possessions of the game went punt (Rhode Island), punt (William and Mary), punt (Rhode Island), missed field goal (William and Mary) and punt (Rhode Island) before the Tribe at last got on the board on Drake Kuhn's 37-yard field goal with 9:41 to play in the second quarter. Its first TD came on Moody's catch with 5:44 left before halftime.

William and Mary had an immediate chance to do more damage when Dante Cook, who had returned interceptions for touchdowns in each of William and Mary's previous two games, stripped Brandon Johnson-Farrell of the ensuing kickoff and Airek Green returned the ball to the 2. But three rushing plays gained a total of 1 yard, and William and Mary settled for a 19-yard field goal.

The Rams didn't get rattled, though, marching 54 yards in seven plays to pull within 13-7 on Ayo Isijola's 20-yard touchdown run with 58 seconds to play in the second quarter.

That's where the score remained late in the third as Rhode Island, after William and Mary couldn't convert a fourth-and-2 from the Rams' 16, began the drive deep into Tribe territory.

After being thwarted by Cottingham, the Rams saw their next drive end when senior linebacker Evan Franks, limited the past two games by an ankle injury, tipped Probst's pass to himself. Terrence Riggins then put the game away with a 9-yard touchdown with 7:29 remaining.

"We did what we had to do," Laycock said. "I thought we played very hard tonight. We were relentless about it. We made plays when we had to. We played against another good, solid team in this league that, had we not responded like we did, the score could have been different."

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