At 10-1, the fifth-seeded Tribe produced their most successful regular-season record in school history, knocking off three ranked opponents (Delaware, Rhode Island and Richmond) as well as prevailing on the road against FBS foe Charlotte in the season opener, 41-24.
Head coach Mike London — yes, that Mike London — is a finalist for the Eddie Robinson Award, which recognizes the FCS national coach of the year, and is no stranger to postseason success. Before taking over the head-coaching job at Virginia, London led Richmond to the FCS Championship in 2008, a 24-7 win over Montana in Chattanooga, Tenn.
London’s squad, which received a first-round bye, has been battle-tested in a tough Colonial Athletic Association that included six of the 24 FCS playoff teams. The Tribe concluded the regular season ranked No. 8 in the coaches poll after finishing tied atop the CAA standings at 7-1. The lone loss came in Week 4 at home against Elon, 35-31, as the team is riding a seven-game win streak heading into Saturday.
“It’s been a complete effort from a lot of people, but particularly happy for the players, who have done a really good job in executing the plan,” London said of the program’s first 10-win regular season. “And now it puts us in a position to play this Saturday, and perhaps continue on. But it’s been a great season, very humbled, honored, blessed — all those things.”
The Tribe is led by sophomore quarterback Darius Wilson, who has thrown for 1,984 yards and 13 touchdowns, while rushing for 431 yards and 4 TDs as well.
Senior running back Bronson Yoder topped the 1,000-yard plateau in the season-finale win at Richmond, as his 89-yard, 2-touchdown effort led the way to an impressive win. Yoder produced six 100-yard performances this season.
Another sophomore, Malachi Imoh, has added 709 yards and 9 scores out of the backfield, with senior Donavyn Lester chipping in with 446 yards and 7 TDs, as William & Mary ranks third amongst FCS schools in rushing with 274 yards per contest.
Senior tight end Lachlan Pitts leads W&M with 516 receiving yards and 5 touchdowns, as Wilson has spread the wealth to a number of his targets. Seven different players have caught a touchdown pass.
The CAA’s Defensive Player of the Year award went to Tribe sophomore linebacker John Pius, who has registered 19 tackles for loss, 11.5 sacks and 3 pass breakups.
“It’s been an intentional focus about just take care of ourselves, do what we do best, and that’s play fast, play hard, play with energy,” London said.
On the opposite sideline, Big South champ Gardner-Webb enters the weekend on a hot streak of its own, winning its last five contests after coming up just short of upsetting Liberty in Lynchburg, falling 21-20, on Oct. 15. Three of those wins came away from home.
The Runnin’ Bulldogs (7-5) prevailed at Eastern Kentucky in the first round last week, 52-41, behind the play of senior running back Narii Gaither, who nearly doubled his season high with 245 yards and a pair of touchdowns on just 28 carries.
Senior quarterback Bailey Fisher, the Big South Offensive Player of the Year, added three more rushing touchdowns (7 carries for 88 yards), while throwing for 118 yards and another score in the win over the Colonels.
Fisher threw for 2,837 yards and 19 touchdowns this season, while adding 11 more scores with his feet. His top target, T.J. Luther, racked up 1,134 yards (7th in FCS) — on just 62 receptions — and 8 touchdowns, and will certainly draw the majority of the attention of the W&M secondary.
Another receiving threat is fellow senior Cutrell Haywood, who has hauled in a team-high 73 grabs for 726 yards, and has 7 trips to the end zone himself.
“They’ve got a dynamic team,” London said of the Bulldogs. “Very athletic, they run, they do a lot of things well.”
This will be the first-ever meeting between the schools on the gridiron. The Tribe was 4-1 at home this year, while the Bulldogs own a road record of 4-4. The winner of Saturday’s game will face the No. 4 Montana State-Weber State winner in the quarterfinals next weekend.
There’s no place London and the Tribe would rather be on Jan. 8 than inside Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas — the site of the FCS Championship game.
“The best reward would be hoisting that trophy up at the end when it’s all said and done,” London said.