WILLIAMSBURG — Jerome Couplin III appreciates the phone calls and support, but he's weary of the refrain. Each week following another agonizing William and Mary loss, he said his phone rings and somebody on the other end tells him, "If only …" or, "You could be …"
He and his teammates are well aware.
"When you lose four games by a total of eight points, it's demoralizing," said Couplin, W&M's junior free safety. "On some teams, people would be falling off or checking out, but we're a family. We have pride in being part of a tribe. We stay together and move on to the next game."
William and Mary (2-5, 1-3 CAA) prepares for Saturday's 3:30 p.m. homecoming game at Zable Stadium against a Maine team (2-5, 1-3 CAA) that mirrors its record, but in no way its anguish.
The Tribe has, indeed, lost four games by a total of eight points. But the ways those games were lost is striking.
Most recently, W&M lost at then-No. 4 James Madison 27-26 in double overtime, after Drake Kuhn missed a 31-yard field goal with five seconds remaining in regulation that would have won it.
The Tribe lost four in a row to start the season, the first three 7-6 at Maryland, 17-14 to Lafayette and 20-17 at defending CAA champ and preseason favorite Towson.
Normally sure-handed receiver Ryan Moody had what would have been a touchdown pass slip through his hands at Maryland, which would have given the Tribe a 13-7 lead in the fourth quarter. The winning touchdown pass at Towson was nullified when quarterback Raphael Ortiz was a shade beyond the line of scrimmage when he released the ball. The loss to Lafayette was a comprehensive horror show by the offense, punctuated by a lengthy lightning delay.
Only the Delaware loss was one-sided (51-21), and that game was its own unique circus, complete with elephants, acrobats and a clown car. The Blue Hens scored on a fluke pick-six by a defensive lineman, a 90-yard scoop-and-score after a blocked W&M chip-shot field goal, and a fumble return. With yet another lightning delay.
"It's tough when you're so close in every single game you play," tight end Nolan Kearney said. "It's really tough when you're playing well in so many areas."
Indeed, the Tribe rushed for 204 yards, with its No. 3 and 4 running backs, against a JMU defense that came in allowing just 102 yards per game on the ground. W&M actually outgained Delaware in total yards.
The Tribe came up with seven turnovers in a breakout win against Georgia State and played a superb first half in a win at Penn. W&M is plus-seven in turnover margin — third in the CAA — and is third in the nation in fewest penalties (24) and penalty yardage (31.4 per game).
"I don't think I've ever been through a year where we've come as close as we've come in so many situations and things have been out of our hands," said Tribe coach Jimmye Laycock, in his 33rd season at his alma mater.
Offensive continuity has been compromised by continuous injuries and setbacks at quarterback. Ortiz, who established himself as the starter after beginning the season as the No. 3 quarterback, injured his throwing shoulder during the JMU game.
Ortiz didn't practice during the bye week, leaving all of the practice reps to backups and former starters Brent Caprio and Michael Graham. Laycock said that he won't know until later this week if Ortiz can practice, or play. He also expects leading rusher Keith McBride to return for Maine, though he is less certain about back Meltoya Jones.
"Sometimes, there are things you can't control," he said. "You work on the things that you can control. You get a bad break here, a bad break there, or whatever. Don't sit around and make excuses. Just control the things you can control, work to get better and try to be as good as you can be."
Couplin, third on the team in tackles, said that the players self-police. They understand that a handful of plays often determine a game, and sometimes a season.
"That type of adversity will help you in the future," Couplin said. "If you enjoy playing the game, you still want to go out and compete and prove yourself. Our motto is 'All In' and that includes everybody. When times are right, things are good. Times are kind of tough right now, but we stay together."
The Maine game begins a four-game run to end the season, with the final three against nationally-ranked and CAA title contenders New Hampshire, Old Dominion and Richmond.
"Record-wise, we're not a great team," Kearney said. "We have four games to show that we are."