Saturday, December 9, 2023

After a shaky start, Tribe stays cool and polishes off a 34-24 win over Campbell

(Courtesy W&M Athletics)

Championship teams don’t always dominate. But when things get dicey, they generally keep a cool head that comes from having been there.

That’s what No. 4 William & Mary, very much a veteran team, did in Thursday night’s season opener in Buies Creek, N.C.

The Tribe trailed by a touchdown less than 6½ minutes in and was tied midway through the second quarter. Yet by creating opportunities for itself, W&M came away with a 34-24 win over Campbell.

After giving up 14 points and 227 yards on the Camels’ first three possessions, the Tribe defense allowed only 10 and 83 the rest of the way. W&M forced two huge fumbles — one that ended a Campbell scoring drive at the 5-yard line, and one that set up an instant red zone opportunity for W&M at the 12.

No, it wasn’t a flawless performance. But for the defending conference champion, it was a gritty and resilient one.

“We’re a veteran team,” said running back Bronson Yoder, who rushed for 124 yards and two touchdowns. “We’ve been here and done this. Campbell came out and had a good fight. But we know there are highs and lows.

“We know we have to stay consistent in our actions and what we do. We don’t put too much pressure on ourselves for what we’ve done. We just look toward what we have to do.”

William & Mary didn’t want to give up a 13-play, 78-yard touchdown drive to start the game, but it happened. The game plan wasn’t to let Campbell quarterback Hajj-Malik Williams hit on his first nine passes, but that also happened.

“We know not to panic,” said quarterback Darius Wilson, who threw for 182 yards and ran for 57. “We know not to get too high or too low.”

The two fumble recoveries created (perhaps, at least) a 14-point swing as the game was very much up in the air.

The first came with the game tied and the Camels at W&M’s 8-yard line. But as NaQuari Rogers tried to muscle his way inside the 5, Bryce Barnes knocked the ball loose and Isaiah Jones pounced on it.

The Tribe offense got as far as the Campbell 45 before punting. Turns out, that was good strategy. Chris McKay muffed Will Whitehurst’s kick, and gunner JT Mayo recovered at the Camels’ 12-yard line.

Three plays later, Yoder scored on a 3-yard run from the direct snap to put W&M ahead 14-7.

“Really, just right place, right time,” said Mayo, who recovered a fumble on the punt team last season against Delaware. “I was ready to tackle him, but it fell right into my hands. I was pumped about that, and it was awesome that we were able to score off it.

“Instant red zone. Good momentum swing. All those things.”

Campbell answered with a nine-play, 81-yard touchdown drive to force a 14-14 tie with 6:00 left in the first half. No matter … the Tribe answered that with a six-play, 65-yard march that was capped by Yoder’s second touchdown.

That put W&M ahead 21-14, a lead it would never give back.

“I like our football team,” W&M coach Mike London said. “We have some toughness and resiliency, and today was about resiliency.”

More of that was needed in the fourth quarter. The Tribe had seemingly taken control with a 27-14 lead and was in punt formation from its 33-yard line. Instead, Campbell’s Alex Santiago came through and blocked it. The Camels took over at the W&M 17.

But Campbell went backwards (linebacker John Pius had a TFL) and settled for a 45-yard field goal. Instead of 27-21, it was 27-17.

“We work on sudden changes two, three times a week,” said end Nate Lynn, who had two sacks. “There was no reason for us to panic. Stuff happens in a football game. That’s part of the flow, how momentum works.

“It just changed the spot of the ball. That’s all. It didn’t change our mindset. Whether it’s the red zone or the other 40, a stop is a stop. But we were glad to keep the seven off the board and leave them with three.”

W&M’s offense put it away with a textbook drive capped by Martin Lucas’ 27-yard catch-and-run to push the lead to 34-17 with 8:11 left.

London knew that Campbell, playing its inaugural CAA game, would be a very tough out. The Camels gave his team problems last season in a 37-21 Tribe win. And this year, they brought in 53 newcomers — a whopping 28 of them transfers.

“It’s hard to win football games when you’re playing a first game against a team you’re not quite sure what they’re going to do,” London said. “To go toe-to-toe and come out on top, that’s an incredibly important win for psyche and the success of our program.”

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