VILLANOVA – It’s almost November, and guess what? William & Mary football is relevant again.
Showing unexpected dominance against the nation’s fourth-ranked team, the Tribe clinched its first winning season in six years with a 31-18 win at Villanova Saturday afternoon. W&M (6-2, 4-1) is one of three Colonial Athletic Association teams with one conference loss heading into the home stretch.
With its offense moving the sticks and its defense intercepting four passes, the Tribe had nearly a 2-to-1 advantage in time of possession. W&M had a four-touchdown lead with 11 minutes remaining in the game before the Wildcats made too-little-too-late charge.
“What a great win for everyone associated with this program,” Tribe coach Mike London said. “To go on the road and play such a tough, gifted team … God is good, man. It’s amazing to see the resiliency of this team over the course of this season.
“It’s all about trying to win games to stay relevant. We’ll enjoy it for a little bit, but we have to move on and get ready for the next one because they’re all good in the CAA. We’re excited about the challenges that are in front of us.”
It was the Tribe’s first win over a top-five team since 2010, when it defeated No. 2 Delaware in Williamsburg. The last time W&M defeated a top-five team on the road was in ’09 at No. 1 Southern Illinois in the NCAA quarterfinals.
And it came against a team that was undefeated against Championship Subdivision teams and won at James Madison on Oct. 9.
“I’ve been around for a couple of years, and we’ve had some games that haven’t gone our way and some seasons that haven’t gone our way,” sixth-year senior linebacker Tyler Crist said. “So to beat a team like this and the way we did, words can’t express it. It’s awesome.”
Listed as a 15-point underdog by some sites, William & Mary trailed for just over three minutes. J.T. Mayo’s 23-yard touchdown run put the Tribe ahead for good with 5:33 remaining in the first quarter. The lead was 17-3 after Darius Wilson’s 1-yard sneak with 4:31 left in the half.
Some consider the most critical part of a football game to be the middle eight minutes — the final four of the second quarter, the first four of the third. W&M proved that point Saturday.
After Wilson’s touchdown, Villanova (6-2, 4-1) picked up a couple of first downs and moved to the Tribe 34-yard line. But instead of making it a one-possession game at halftime, Villanova turned it over when quarterback Daniel Smith was intercepted by safety Gage Herdman.
The Wildcats had the ball first to start the third quarter, but Smith was picked off again — this time by safety Malcolm Spencer. Given an immediate red zone opportunity, the offense capitalized with Bronson Yoder’s 4-yard touchdown run to make it 24-3 with 13:25 left in the third.
It was the second consecutive week the Tribe intercepted four passes. All eight, by the way, were by eight different players.
“Our defense had a field day,” said Crist, who deflected a pass that was intercepted by Tye Freeland in the first quarter. “Our defense is really, really good. … We’ve got something special going on.”
As dominant as the defense was, the Tribe’s running game was just as effective. W&M rushed for 258 yards, its third consecutive game with at least that many. They did it largely without top rusher Donavyn Lester, who limped off the field early in the second quarter and did not return.
Yoder finished with 106 yards on a career-high 25 attempts. Malachi Imoh finished with 67 yards and a touchdown, and Wilson added 33 with a score.
With 11 minutes remaining in the game, W&M had taken 68 snaps on offense to Villanova’s 38. The Tribe had tripled the Wildcats in total yards (343-113) and nearly quintupled them in first downs (19-4).
“When our offense is on the field, we have opportunities for guys like Donavyn Lester and Malachi Imoh and Bronson Yoder to carry the ball and score for us,” London said. “It’s a big deal, particularly when you’re scoring points, to have the time of possession. That was a positive thing for us today.”
After falling behind 31-3, Villanova scored touchdowns on consecutive possessions — accounting for 154 of its 291 total yards — in the fourth quarter. But W&M’s Gage Herdman recovered an onside kick with 3:47 remaining to end the Wildcats’ momentum.
If history is any guide, the Tribe needs at least one and probably two more wins to make the postseason. But with three games remaining in the regular season, starting at Delaware on Saturday, London is staying practical.
“I’ve been down this road before,” said London, who won a national championship at Richmond in 2008. “I’ve seen games like this. I’ve seen wins like this. Sometimes it’s luck, and sometimes it’s a lot of opportunities the guys seize upon.
“We’ll get the injury report, see where we are, and keep on going. Right now, we’re in a positive mindset.”