Stout defense fuels comeback

WILLIAMSBURG —

William and Mary's defense was brilliant last season, carrying the Tribe to the national playoff semifinals and producing two NFL draft choices.

Saturday, coordinator Bob Shoop's bunch was even better.

Not statistically, mind you. This performance was rooted in guile and guts rather than numbers and talent.

Three times Saturday, second-ranked Delaware drove inside William and Mary's 5-yard line. Three times the Tribe refused to yield a touchdown — the Blue Hens managed only two chip-shot field goals.

Those stubborn stands allowed fourth-ranked William and Mary to pilfer a 17-16 victory at standing-room-only Zable Stadium.

"To do that against the No. 2 team really speaks to our defensive players and defensive coaches," Tribe coach Jimmye Laycock said.

Indeed, the Blue Hens boasted not only the Colonial Athletic Association's lone unblemished record but also the league's top running offense and leading rusher. Oh, and their quarterback is a transfer from Penn State who intrigues NFL scouts much like Delaware alum Joe Flacco did three years ago.

But tackle Mike Stover, linebacker Dante Cook and their defensive comrades smothered Andrew Pierce and Pat Devlin. They stuffed Pierce for a season-low 55 yards, 70 below his average, and sacked Devlin five times.

This they did with starting end Ravi Pradhanang a late scratch due to a concussion and with All-CAA linebacker Jake Trantin gone for the season for personal reasons. This they did with end Adrian Tracy, last year's headliner and a New York Giants draft choice, on the sidelines for homecoming.

"When you play a quarterback as good as Pat, you can't let him stand back there and pat (the ball)," said Stover, a part-time starter last season on a line that also included Dallas draft choice Sean Lissemore. "He'll pick you apart. I'm from (Pennsylvania), and I've heard all about him. There's a reason he went to Penn State."

Stover had two sacks, both in the first half, and pressured Devlin several other times. Bryan Jean-Pierre, subbing for Pradhanang, contributed a sack.

But the defense's, the team's, savior was Cook. Again. The Tribe's MVP to date, he had a game-high 15 tackles, nine solo.

Cook and fellow linebacker Evan Francks stopped Pierce on third-and-goal from the 2 and fourth-and-goal from the 1 in the second quarter as Delaware employed 314-pound reserve Erle Ladson in its jumbo package.

"That was a ton of fun on the goal line," Stover said to Cook. "That (fourth-down) play you made was fire."

"Those are the types of opportunities Coach Shoop talks about every day," Cook said. "Being a championship defense and having your back against the wall. There's nowhere to go."

Trailing 17-16, Delaware had 12 yards to go for a first down in the fourth quarter when Cook enveloped Devlin, forcing an intentional-grounding penalty that knocked the Blue Hens (7-1, 4-1) out of field-goal range.

On Delaware's next, and final, possession, Cook sacked Devlin for a 6-yard loss that extended Mike Perry's attempted game-winning field goal to 42 yards.

The kick went begging to the left, allowing quarterback Mike Callahan, who directed two touchdown drives after replacing Mike Paulus in the third quarter, to take a knee.

"You talk about halftime adjustments," Shoop laughed. "Their (spread) was giving us fits. In the second half we just said, 'Dante, blitz.' "

Ah, sometimes life and football are so uncomplicated.

The Tribe (6-1, 4-1 CAA) has clinched Laycock's 21st winning season in 31 years and is close to securing a second consecutive playoff invite. A daunting test at North Carolina awaits next Saturday, but that's a house-money game — avoiding injury and making sure the check clears are the primary aims.

So let's take stock. William and Mary has won six straight since a season-opening loss at Massachusetts and this month alone has bested No. 1 Villanova and No. 2 Delaware.

"That," Laycock said of Saturday, "was pretty impressive."

Uh, yeah.

David Teel can be reached at 247-4636 or by e-mail at dteel@dailypress.com. For more from Teel, read his blog at dailypress.com/teeltime, and follow him at twitter.com/DavidTeelatDP. Sign up for text alerts by texting "BIGSPORTS" to 71593

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