Shon Mitchell’s first college start was at Delaware against the Championship Subdivision’s No. 6 scoring defense. Suffice to say, the experience was trying for William and Mary’s true freshman quarterback.
Saturday Mitchell made his first home start — against reigning national champion James Madison, owner of Division I’s longest winning streak and the nation’s No. 2 scoring defense.
Similar straits, similar outcome.
The top-ranked Dukes smothered the Tribe 46-14 at Zable Stadium, the home squad’s touchdowns coming in the fourth quarter after JMU had seized a 43-0 lead.
The top-ranked Dukes (7-0, 4-0 Colonial Athletic Association) converted six takeaways into 33 points, showcasing the ideal combination of athleticism, depth and discipline that have marked Mike Houston’s two seasons as head coach.
Conversely, W&M (2-5, 0-4) was sloppy and indecisive on offense, the warts visible no matter which of the three quarterbacks head coach Jimmye Laycock used. Even the Tribe’s usually stout defense cracked against a relentless opponent.
“We knew we were going to have to play a pretty clean game,” Laycock said. “In contrast, we played a pretty unclean game so far as with turnovers and stuff. That’s just not the way we normally operate. …
“I thought defensively we really competed and played really, really well. We may have gotten worn down a little in the second half. (But) I can’t say enough about how hard those guys played.”
Indeed, led by linebacker Nate Atkins, the Tribe limited the Dukes, winners of 19 straight, to a credible 5.0 yards per play. But while JMU has a senior All-America at quarterback in Bryan Schor, W&M appears lost at the sport’s essential position.
After its first five possessions ended with punts and netted 38 yards, Laycock pulled Mitchell, who went the distance in last week’s 17-0 loss at Delaware, in favor of sophomore Brandon Battle. It didn’t help.
Battle promptly turned the ball over on consecutive series, Darrious Carter recovering the fumble he caused with a strip-sack, and Jordan Brown intercepting an unwise pass. JMU converted those takeaways into nine points – a 2-point conversion try after Marcus Marshall’s 1-yard touchdown run failed – and a 19-0 halftime lead.
And it could have been worse. Much worse.
The Dukes were set to score on their opening possession, but Schor’s short pass into the end zone deflected off Terrence Alls’ hands to cornerback Aaron Swinton for the Tribe’s second interception of the season.
Three series later, on a third-and-3 from W&M’s 34, safety Mike Barta easily intercepted Schor’s heave into the end zone.
But the Tribe could neither run nor pass, a combination of its shortcomings and a JMU defense that Laycock believes is far better than last season’s. In short, the three-score intermission margin felt like six.
Laycock went to junior Tommy McKee, who’s adept at the read-option, in the second half at quarterback. Courtesy of a fortunate deflection, McKee connected with Jordan Lowrey for a 33-yard touchdown. But he also threw three picks and was sacked four times.
So where does W&M go from here at quarterback?
“That’s a good question,” Laycock said. “We’ll see. We’ve got good guys. They’ll compete. Just a lot of growing pains.”
The pains became literal when McKee was injured tackling Brown after an interception, forcing Mitchell back into the game.
Brown had two interceptions, Jimmy Moreland and Rashad Robinson one each. Seven Dukes combined for the six sacks.
“That was probably (the key),” Houston said of JMU’s pass rush.
Disappointed though he was in his offense, especially his quarterbacks, Laycock again was impressed by Schor. Laycock played the position at W&M, has coached it exceptionally well for decades and has a keen appreciation for the best.
“We did a pretty good job against that quarterback,” he said, “putting pressure on Schor and trying to contain him. But … early in that ballgame he made a play that was just unbelievable.”
It was a third-and-10 from midfield when, flushed from the pocket, Schor sprinted right and found Ish Hyman for 37 yards.
“I even kind of liked that play,” Laycock said. “You appreciate how good it was.”
So he couldn’t have made that play in his prime?
“In my prime, I couldn’t have even come close to doing that,” Laycock said with a smile.
Postseason hopes dashed, Laycock now must rethink his offense.
“There’s a lot of other people that are involved offensively that gotta do something,” he said. “We have to get production out of a lot of other guys. But that’s a big one right now. We’ve got to get better play there.”
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