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The Big William & Mary Preview: Can the Hoos Match Last Week's Effort?

After falling short against Notre Dame a week ago, the Hoos finally get a break from their brutal early season schedule. The William and Mary Tribe simply do not pose the same challenge that UCLA or Notre Dame did. The question becomes: can the Hoos play with the same fire and energy that they did last week. With a much smaller and less vocal crowd, and against a less heralded opponent, keeping up their energy could be a challenge.

Maurice Canady and the Hoos have a lesser challenge this week.
Maurice Canady and the Hoos have a lesser challenge this week.
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

After opening the season with two games against top-20 teams, the Hoos finally get a breather this week. This week's opponent is ranked 25th. In the FCS poll. William and Mary are a solid FCS team, and they opened their season with a 34-7 road win against Lafayette College in Pennsylvania. (In case you were wondering, Lafayette isn't very good.)

The Hoos first played W&M in 1908, winning 11-0. All time, the Hoos are 27-6-1 in this series. The low point might be the 1959 matchup that the Indians (their nickname from 1916-1977) won 37-0, playing in Charlottesville.

However, fans today would probably say that the low point came in 2009. That was Al Groh's last year. The season opened with a 26-14 loss to the Tribe (W&M's current nickname). That game was horrible, as the Hoos managed just 268 total yards against a lower division school. They also held William & Mary to just 309 yards. They were undone by 7 TOs, including an INT return for TD that clinched the game.

In the Tribe's opening week win over Lafayette, they put up 483 yards, split reasonably well with 194 on the ground and 289 in the air. They did not play last week, as they obviously want to spend extra time getting their game plan together for their lone FBS matchup of the season.

William and Mary Offense

Stop me if you've heard this one before. The Hoos face a team this week running a spread offense. Yep. Even FCS teams are running spread offenses now. It's all the rage. (Do you hear that Craig Littlepage?)

Unlike the last two weeks, the Tribe aren't led by a new QB. Steve Cluley started all 12 games last year, and threw for over 2000 yards with 11 TDs and just 4 INTs. He completed just 57% of his passes, but still averaged over 7 yards per attempt. A big part of that was Tre McBride, one of the top WRs in W&M history. McBride had nearly 40% of Cluley's completions last year. He was drafted in the 7th round by the Titans, but didn't make the opening day roster. He is on their practice squad.

But it isn't just McBride who left. The Tribe's top 4 WRs on the depth chart combined for 1 catch and 5 yards last year. Sophomore DeVonte Demond is the team's top WR and had 24 catches for 300 yards and a TD last year. He missed the season opener with an "illness" and isn't expected to play this week either.

With so little returning talent at WR, the team is going to lean even harder on RB Mikal Abdul-Saboor. He was the CAA's 3rd leading rusher a year ago, and 13th in FCS. He had 17 carries for 103 yards and 2 TDs in the Lafayette win. The Hoos will focus much of their defensive attention on stopping him.

In fact, this may be a game where the Hoos don't spend over 95% of their defensive snaps in the nickel. The Tribe will likely have 3 WRs in on a lot of plays. And they also have a solid TE in Andrew Caskin. So, there will certainly be plays when Wil Wahee or Tim Harris come in as an extra DB. But on early downs, figure on a lot of runs from Abdul-Saboor. And the Hoos would benefit from having some extra bulk in the front 7 on those plays.

You may have heard that the depth chart for the Hoos this week lists Mike Moore as the strong-side LB. This may be an effort to do just that (extra bulk). Moore is an awfully big LB, and though he hasn't had a ton of success rushing the passer this year, he does have some skills. Lining him up on the outside, next to Kwontie Moore would make it very difficult to run to that side.

The Hoos may also use Donte Wilkins more in early downs. At 6'1" 290, he's the stoutest of the Hoos' DTs. He's the best space eater and run stopper. After back to back weeks playing against superb opposing OLs, the Hoos get to face a sub-par OL. The Tribe have some solid OLs, but nothing compared to UCLA or Notre Dame. That said, their entire OL returns from last year, and is led by senior OC Andrew Jones, a 1st team All-CAA member a year ago. So, despite the overall talent level being a bit lower than the past two weeks, the Hoos defense is once again up against a solid group of OLs.

Last year, William and Mary's offense ranked 96th in the FCS in total offense, but 74th in scoring. Despite having one of the top rushers in the nation, the Tribe ranked just 78th in rushing offense. That, however, is better than their 93rd ranked passing offense. They were 58th in passing efficiency, so maybe they should be running the ball more. They did run the ball 41 times versus 30 passes against Lafayette, but a fair amount of that came after the outcome had been determined.

Despite the blowout win, Cluley played the entire game. William and Mary do not have an experienced backup QB, so if Cluley goes down (as Malik Zaire did last week), the Tribe could be in big trouble. If the Hoos are able to bottle up Abdul-Saboor and force the Tribe into a one-dimensional offense, they could be in trouble even with a healthy Cluley.

Player to Watch

#7 Mikal Abdul-Saboor - The 5'9" 1was a dual-threat QB in HS who was recruited by Georgia Tech, Stanford and a number of other FBS schools. He converted to RB during his redshirt season, and finished 4th on the team with 242 yards as a redshirt freshman, though he rushed for just 3.5 yards per carry that year. Since then, he's rushed for roughly 5 yards per carry and ranked among FCS leaders in rushing. Last year, he rushed for 1266 yards and 12 TDs.

He came to college at around 180 pounds. He simply wasn't built to run between the tackles. And while he's quick, he doesn't have game breaking speed to get outside with any consistency. Since his freshman year, he's put on nearly 30 pounds and he's much more capable of handling the punishment that comes with running 30 times per game, especially between the tackles.

Abdul-Saboor still isn't a game-breaker. His career long run is just 40 yards. But he is very good at making the initial defender miss. His small stature sometimes leads to him getting lost behind the line of scrimmage. He'll then find a small crease and pick up 4-5 yards even after the defense had him bottled up behind the LOS.

That 40 yard run came last year against the Hokies. He rushed for 85 yards on just 10 carries. That means his other 9 carries still gained 45 yards, which is 5 yards a pop. That's good production against a top FBS defense.

William and Mary Defense

The Tribe defense was better than their offense last year, finishing 67th in the FCS. That doesn't seem very good, but they were 32nd in scoring defense, which does seem good. They were also 38th in rushing defense, but just 90th in passing defense (87th in pass efficiency defense).

Part of the success they had in scoring defense was related to their 6th ranked turnover margin. They were also one of the least penalized units in the nation. Those two things point to a well coached football team. Jim Laycock has been there for 36 years and has won over 230 games. The fact that he's remained at W&M and not moved on to a bigger job speaks to his loyalty and his love for William for Mary.

The Tribe run a fairly basic 4-3 defense. A year ago, their success against the run was largely due to the DL, which had 3 seniors and a junior. The quartet combined for 19.5 sacks and 27 TFLs. This year, only that junior (Tyler Claytor) is left. He contributed 5 .5 TFLs and 5 sacks last year and is an All-CAA candidate this year.

The strength of this year's unit is a trio of senior LBs, headed by Luke Rhodes. Rhodes is the lone FCS player on the Butkus Award watch list for the nation's best LB. He led the team last year with 93 tackles (7.5 for loss) and also chipped in 4 sacks, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and 5 passes defended. He had 7 tackles (6 solo) against Lafayette and helped hold the Leopards (yep, the Lafayette Leopards) to just 3.3 yards per carry.

The Tribe's DBs are also solid, led by a pair of senior safeties. SS Jared Velasquez is an All-CAA candidate and 3 year starter at safety (FS for most of his career). FS DeAndre Houston-Carson is a team captain who was a 2 time All-CAA selection at CB prior to moving to safety this year. The two CBs are a bit young and untested, although Trey Reed made 5 starts a year ago and forced 3 fumbles.

Both of the CBs are on the small side, which gives Canaan Severin and the rest of the UVA WR corps as big advantage. Matt Johns had a lot of success last week throwing stop routes and out routes to Severin, who was able to use his body and his arms to shield the Notre Dame defenders and make catches even when covered. He could have similar success again, with a 30+ pound difference between himself and the Tribe CBs.

The Hoos OL began to have a great deal of success late in the game against Notre Dame. Some of that may have been due to the Notre Dame defense tiring a bit, but clearly the Hoos OL started to get some push in the ground game, especially to the edges.

The Hoos should focus on running to the edges again this week. W&M's DEs are both small and untested (each having made his first start in the season opener), so the Hoos OTs should be able to push them around quite a bit. If they can also get a body onto the LBs they could break some big runs. Rhodes, of course, the key, but if they can get him pinned inside, Smoke Mizzell and company could have success.

In the 2009 game, the Hoos turned it over 7 times. That was the reason they lost. If they play sloppy like that again, they could fall again. But that seems unlikely from what appears to be a much more polished offense compared to last year. William and Mary is unlikely to get much pressure on Matt Johns (they did not record a sack against Lafayette), which is one of the best ways to create turnovers.

Player to Watch

#50 MLB Luke Rhodes - This is a no brainer, as Rhodes is one of the best LBs in America, despite playing for an FCS schools. Rhodes is a likely early draft pick this year, which is impressive coming out of FCS. Rhodes is also a 2-time captain for William and Mary, just the 11th player to be named a captain twice.

Rhodes is 6'1" 240 and fast. He likely runs in the 4.5-4.6 range, which may not sound all that fast, but is very fast for a guy that big. He combines that size/speed combo with tremendous anticipation and intelligence. He's all over the field, and will make plays against the run and the pass.

Rhodes is the guy that Matt Johns and the OL need to note on every play. If they can get a body on him,  even just to slow him down, they'll largely be successful. He'll play in shallow zones, he'll rush the passer, he'll run blitz and he'll improvise on some plays. He's a true jack-of-all-trades MLB and is easily the key for the Hoos offense this week.

Steve Fairchild likes to use Smoke in the passing game, especially on underneath routes in the middle of the field. This is Rhodes' territory and Johns will have to be careful when making throws there. A misread could very easily turn into an interception by Rhodes.

Special Teams

While McBride's departure hurt the offense, it devastated the return game. McBride was the primary option on the PR and KR units and was one of the top returners in the nation for the past two years. Replacing him at PR is Velasquez and at KR is Kendall Anderson, a junior RB. Both are bigger than McBride was but neither is nearly as quick. CB Aaron Swinton is also an option in the return game. Velasquez averaged 5.5 yards per return against Lafayette.

The Hoos PR game looked much better with Maurice Canady than it has in years. He only had 1 return, but he took it for 11 yards and looked dangerous. He also made good decisions on two deep kicks that both resulted in touchbacks. He's going to break one this year, and it may be this week. The KR unit continued to look lost, and I still don't understand why Albert Reid is returning kicks. There are much better options, including Zaccheaus and Hamm (possibly still hampered by a hand injury) just to name a couple. Both coverage teams have actually been solid so far this year.

Conclusion

The Hoos faced a fairly big talent gap both of the past two weeks. The Hoos are on the opposite side of that equation this week, and the gap might be even larger. At the top of the depth chart, William and Mary have the talent to compete with FBS teams. Rhodes, Abdul-Saboor and WR Christain Reeves are all solid players who would get regular playing time for most FBS teams. But once you get down towards the middle and bottom of the depth chart, the Tribe simply can't hang with a decent FBS team.

If the Hoos play a smart game, staying with what they do well and avoiding mistakes, they should be able to win this game easily. Mistakes such as penalties and turnovers are what will keep the Tribe in this game. Also, while William and Mary doesn't have the same quick strike capabilities that UCLA and Notre Dame had, the Hoos need to stop giving up big plays. Through 2 games, the Hoos have given up 13 big plays (greater than 20 yards), 5 on the ground and 8 in the air. The Hoos have had only 8 big plays of their own (6 in the air, 2 on the ground), which is a big disparity to make up.

The Hoos were a bit sloppy with penalties last week, but only turned it over once and generally played a safe game. A repeat of that performance will lead to an easy win.

Prediction: Hoos 42, Tribe 14