WILLIAMSBURG — Penn's second touchdown in a span of 31/2 minutes suddenly tightened a game that William and Mary controlled for three quarters. How would the Tribe respond?
Quite nicely. Drawing on last year's frustrations and this year's emphasis, W&M was focused and sharp and, in the end, productive.
The Tribe marched downfield for the clinching touchdown and stonewalled the Quakers' comeback in a soggy 27-14 win Saturday at Zable Stadium.
"The best thing I thought about the day was we kept working hard and we worked to overcome the adversity," Tribe coach Jimmye Laycock said. "We didn't give in to anything. We showed pretty good mental toughness, in so far as handling ourselves, whether our defense was backed up, whether the offense had to take that last drive and grind it out or whatever. I thought we showed a lot of resiliency and mental toughness."
Indeed, the Tribe (4-2) had Penn covered for three quarters, building a 21-0 lead and limiting the Quakers to 84 yards.
But William and Mary committed three second-half turnovers, and the defending Ivy League champs and preseason favorites finally gained some offensive traction in the fourth quarter.
Quarterback Billy Ragone connected with Ryan O'Malley for short touchdown passes on back-to-back possessions, the second with 7:58 remaining after forcing a fumble by Tribe quarterback Michael Graham at the W&M 26-yard line.
Ahead just 21-14, William and Mary answered with one of its signature drives of the season. The Tribe went 75 yards in 12 plays, all on the ground. Mikal Abdul-Saboor and Jarrell Cooper split the carries, with Abdul-Saboor (100 yards) scoring from the 1-yard line for his third touchdown of the game.
"Before the last drive on the sideline," Abdul-Saboor said, "we came together as an offense and said, 'Finish.' That's what we've been preaching since the beginning of the season, something we didn't really do last year."
In last season's 2-9 slog, the Tribe lost five games by three points or fewer and another by a touchdown. One of its two wins was at Penn, where it led 24-7 and 31-14 before holding on for a 34-28 decision.
"We knew from last year, playing against them, that they would fight back," Tribe safety Jerome Couplin said. "We knew they weren't going to quit and roll over on us. They gave us a good shot at the end. We knew from last year and experience that we had to finish. Last year, as a defense, we didn't really finish.
"I don't think (anybody) got down or anything. We just knew we had to finish and do our job."
Abdul-Saboor's clinching touchdown gave Penn (2-2) just 1:50 to get two scores. The Quakers' last drive ended at the W&M 8-yard line.
The Tribe defense limited Penn to 109 yards rushing and provided two short-field scoring opportunities in the first half. On the game's first series, Mike Reilly slapped the ball from Ragone's hand and Stephen Sinnott recovered and advanced the ball to the Penn 12. Abdul-Saboor scored five plays later.
In the second quarter, linebacker Luke Rhodes punched the ball from Spencer Kulcsar, and Ivan Tagoe recovered at the Penn 32. Quarterback Michael Graham connected with Tre McBride for a 3-yard touchdown and a 14-0 lead.
After taking a 21-0 lead to start the third quarter, the Tribe continued to press the issue on offense, mixing run and pass, despite the sloppy, wet conditions. Something between a heavy mist and a drizzle fell the entire game.
"We weren't going to sit on it," Laycock said. "That wasn't our plan going in. I wanted our guys to be aggressive. You don't get any better by (going into a shell). You get better by trying to make plays. … We were going to keep playing football."
As for the conditions, Laycock said, "They were tough, but I didn't want our guys to give into it, really. I really didn't. I wanted us to keep playing. Who knows? We might have some more games like that where we need to keep playing."
Soon, as a matter of fact. The Tribe's final six games are against conference opponents, four of which are ranked, beginning next week at No. 14 Maine.
"We know that we have to continue to improve, week in and week out," defensive tackle George Beerhalter said. "We've got to come back Monday, watch this film, learn from the bad, take the good into next week, and just come in ready to work every single day. We need to improve. We've got Maine next week. It's a big matchup."
Fairbank can be reached by phone at 757-247-4637