WILLIAMSBURG — William and Mary could, and arguably should, have beaten Maryland in last season's opener. Coach Jimmye Laycock knew it, as did his staff and players. One super-sized problem:
The understandable confidence that the players gleaned from that 7-6 rock fight against a Football Bowl Subdivision opponent quickly metastasized into complacency, if not arrogance.
"We were thinking, 'This is the best team on our schedule. We'll blow everybody else out,'" defensive end Mike Reilly said. "We can't be foolish like that this year."
That foolishness contributed to a 2-9 record that was the program's worst since 1980, Laycock's first season on the job. Lesson learned?
We're about to find out.
Saturday's opener at West Virginia was replete with encouraging moments and performances. William and Mary lost 24-17, but quarterback Michael Graham, with considerable help from receiver Tre McBride and running back Jarrell Cooper, managed the offense effectively. Also, free safety Jerome Couplin, outside linebacker Quincey September and Reilly excelled on defense.
The challenge is to not only sustain but also improve as the Championship Subdivision portion of the schedule beckons, starting with Saturday's visit from Hampton University. The first step in that process: Remember Lafayette.
After the Maryland setback, William and Mary returned home to face Lafayette, a Patriot League program fresh off a 4-7 season.
"Maybe we took Lafayette for granted," fullback Darnell Laws said Tuesday.
The Leopards outgained the Tribe by more than 100 yards on a sloppy track, dominated time of possession and won 17-14.
Hampton 2013 mirrors Lafayette 2012. The Pirates were 3-7 last season and dropped their opener, 42-9 at Western Illinois.
Laws and Reilly insisted that this William and Mary team is too hungry and humbled to overlook any foe, especially one from just down Interstate 64. Meanwhile, Laycock sees an opponent with sound coaching schemes that were undermined by a ghastly nine turnovers — six interceptions and three lost fumbles — against Western Illinois.
But the biggest difference from 2012 to '13 in Laycock's mind is his team's stability and health, especially at quarterback with Graham, a fifth-year senior. He said the Tribe sustained no serious injuries Saturday, which should create the practice continuity that coaches crave.
"Then you have the opportunity to build on what you did," Laycock said.
Laycock believes William and Mary did plenty at West Virginia. The Tribe countered an early Mountaineers touchdown with 17 unanswered points, committed only one turnover and three penalties, and adjusted to West Virginia's varying tempos, including the no-huddle, rapid-fire pace that coach Dana Holgorsen prefers.
Under Laycock, William and Mary has challenged FBS teams such as Maryland, North Carolina and North Carolina State, and beaten the likes of Virginia, Temple and Navy.
"We've challenged ourselves plenty of times against big schools … and that was a big-time atmosphere, and a big-time team," he said of WVU. "That was major college football for sure, and we didn't get anything given to us.
"In some of those (FBS) ballgames, we'd get a bunch of turnovers and short fields and things like that. We recovered that one fumble (Saturday) toward the latter part of the second quarter and converted that into a field goal, but really … we didn't have things that were freebies. We had to earn everything we got, and I thought we did. We moved the ball on offense, came up with some good stops defensively, we handled the kicking game pretty well. … It looked like two good teams playing."
William and Mary was far from good last season and was picked to finish ninth in the 11-team Colonial Athletic Association this year, a forecast that Laws called a slap in the face. Still, the Tribe approached West Virginia sensibly.
"I was pleased with their confidence going into that game," Laycock said. "We take the opening kickoff, go three plays and out, punt the ball to them and they go right down and score. If you're not really confident and sure of yourself you're thinking, 'Whoa, start the busses.'
"We came right back and kept battling. I didn't sense any degree of panic from our players, I didn't see any deer-in-the-headlight looks at all, and I've been in some ballgames where I've seen that now. I've seen that sometimes with guys, 'Like, whoa, what have I gotten myself into here now?'"
If William and Mary remains as resilient and mature, this season could far exceed expectations.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun