William and Mary coach Jimmye Laycock does not normally put any amount of faith in statistics.
But even Laycock could not overlook the most glaring statistic in the College’s six-game losing streak against Villanova — the Wildcats have not yielded a single turnover in the last four games against the Tribe, while the College has tossed three interceptions and lost five fumbles over that span.
The key, then, in Saturday’s matchup between the top-ranked Wildcats (3-1, 1-0 CAA) and the No. 7 Tribe (3-1, 1-1 CAA), is relatively simple: eliminate turnovers.
“(Villanova quarterback Chris Whitney) is one of the best I have ever seen at recovering fumbles,” Laycock said with a smile. “I don’t know how many times the ball was on the ground up there last year, but they kept recovering them. We have got to get turnovers against them … People talk about forcing turnovers, and you can do some of that, but when opportunities present themselves, when the fall is fumbled, whether you caused it or not, you have to get on it.”
Junior quarterback Mike Paulus makes his first start for the College, only the second start of his career. In his first meaningful action for the Tribe last weekend against Maine, Paulus entered the game after senior starter Mike Callahan sustained a shoulder injury, and led the College to a 21-point fourth quarter comeback.
Laycock announced Monday that Callahan’s shoulder will keep him out for at least two more weeks, and tabbed Paulus as the interim starter.
Despite the fact that his first Tribe start will come against the top team in the country, Paulus said he believes his experience at North Carolina will help him this weekend.
“I’m excited about it,” Paulus said. “I think if I hadn’t been in games, or I hadn’t had starts before, I think I would be a little nervous. But I’ve been in there and gotten my face smashed into the ground by Miami and Virginia Tech, so I’m not worried.”
Paulus will face a Wildcat defense that has forced five interceptions already this year. In its first four games, Villanova has held its opponents to an average of 179.8 passing yards and just two touchdowns through the air.
Villanova has also allowed its opponents an average of just 67 rushing yards per game, not a good sign for a modest Tribe rushing attack that has managed an average of 119 yards per game this season.
“They’re good, they’re real good,” Paulus said. “There are some teams in the ACC who run a 3-4 defense like they do. (Villanova) has the athletes to run it, and they have been successful with it. We are going to have to be smart with the ball, take care of it, and not turn it over. As far as the ACC goes, it looks like they could be an ACC-caliber defense.”
Defensively, the College will face one of the nation’s most dangerous offenses in Villanova. The Wildcats feature one of the top quarterback-wide receiver tandems in signal caller Chris Whitney and wideout Matt Szczur.
Whitney has completed 44 of his 62 passes in four games for seven touchdowns and three interceptions, making him the second most efficient quarterback in the nation.
Szczur, the 2009 CAA Offensive Player of the Year, is one of the most dynamic scoring threats in the country due to his unique ability to play three positions: wideout, tailback, and at times, quarterback.
However, the College defense may not have to contend with Szczur this weekend, as he is listed as questionable this week after sustaining an ankle injury last weekend against Penn.
“We can be a shutdown defense,” sophomore linebacker Dante Cook said. “We have done it in spurts, not only in the Maine game, but also in the ODU game. We had flashes of a shutdown defense where we had like 7 or 8 three-and-outs and made them punt the ball in both (games).”
After falling to the Wildcats by the slimmest of margins last year, Tribe players and coaches said they believe that the difference in Saturday’s matchup will come down to executing the game plan to perfection.
“We still haven’t played 60 minutes of football,” Paulus said. “It’s something we talk about every Friday night at the hotel. We want to come out and play Tribe football for 60 minutes, and we haven’t done it yet. But we feel if we do it, we can be one of the best teams in the country. We are going to harp on it this week … we need to or we won’t win this game.”