Phil Steele ranked the Tribe as the No. 1 team in the country in his preseason FCS poll over fellow CAA member and defending national champion Villanova, raising some eyebrows in the land formerly known as Division I-AA territory. But head coach Jimmye Laycock, with 31 years, 34 All-Americans and more than 200 victories on his resume, has made the national football pundit look good through the first two months of the season. Following a season-opening loss at No. 20 Massachusetts, No. 3 William & Mary (6-1) has reeled off six straight victories, including wins over the sixth-ranked Wildcats and No. 5 Delaware during the month of October, and currently sit atop of the Colonial Athletic Association.
The Tribe thrives off its suffocating defense, which is allowing just 16.0 points per game, good for eighth nationally (FCS). Villanova and Delaware were both ranked in the top-20 nationally in rushing offense – churning out more than 200 yards per game – heading into their matchup with the Tribe, but that duo was held to 62 yards and 47 yards, respectively. The Tar Heels will present yet another challenge on Saturday, as UNC's ground game is averaging 160.8 rushing yards over its last four outings.
William & Mary has a rushing weapon of its own in Payton Award candidate Jonathan Grimes (510 yards, 7 TD), who leads the CAA with 146.7 all-purpose yards per game. The junior running back already owns the Tribe's career record for all-purpose yards with 4,852.
"They have some good athletes and they are very well coached. Coach Laycock has been there for a long time. I think every coach in America would like to say you've been at a place for 31 years. It is a pretty significant accomplishment on his behalf and it is a direct result of the fact you are doing a good job." – UNC head coach Butch Davis
"I'm just excited to go see everybody. The game will take care of itself, whether I play or not." – William & Mary backup quarterback Mike Paulus
Matchups to Watch
William & Mary's Mike Paulus vs. North Carolina's Pass Defense
Mike Paulus made his collegiate debut two years ago at Kenan Stadium against Virginia Tech, entering the game after UNC starter T.J. Yates suffered an ankle injury. After a quick touchdown to give the Tar Heels a 17-3 lead, the Hokies shut down Paulus the rest of the game, and after a rough start against Miami the next week, his playing time in Chapel Hill was over.
Now a Tribe quarterback, Paulus encountered a similar situation four weeks ago, entering the game against Maine after starting quarterback Mike Callahan went down with a shoulder injury. But this time Paulus excelled, completing 9-of-16 passes for 104 yards and connecting with Chase Hill for a 21-yard touchdown pass with 20 seconds remaining to lift William & Mary to a thrilling 24-21 victory. He then directed his squad to victories over Villanova and Rhode Island, before Callahan returned in the second half against Delaware after the Syracuse, N.Y. native struggled early.
Callahan (70-of-110 passing, 939 yards, 6 TD, 3 INT) is the odds-on favorite to start against North Carolina on Saturday, but with three critical CAA games left on the schedule and the starter still nursing his injured shoulder, it's possible that Laycock could hand the reigns over to Paulus (64-of-107 passing, 674 yards, 2 TD, 2 INT) against his former team in a game that has little relevance in the grand scheme of the Tribe's season.
"It really doesn't change much at all, whether I'm starting or not," Paulus told the Daily Press. "I've been able to start the past couple of games and it's been a lot of fun. I'll go into it the same as I have before, going in like I'm going to play, and just being ready to go if I get in there."
Paulus left Chapel Hill with no ill will and still returns to visit his teammates on occasion, but there's no denying he would like an opportunity to light up his former team, especially considering UNC's decimated secondary.
In the second half against Miami, the Tar Heels only had three scholarship players available at cornerback – true freshmen Tre Boston and Jabari Price and red-shirt freshman Terry Shankle. Senior Kendric Burney was cleared to play against the Tribe after missing seven games due to his involvement in the ongoing NCAA investigation and provides a significant talent upgrade, but the self-dubbed "Rude Boyz" of the defensive backfield need LeCount Fantroy (shoulder) and Mywan Jackson (groin) to get healthy before the weekend.
Paulus hasn't missed the opportunity to rib his old teammates about his return to Kenan Stadium.
"He shot the guys text messages, talking a little smack," UNC safety Deunta Williams said. "… He said, ‘On Oct. 30, the rude boyz are going to have manners.' So it was kind of funny, but that's Mike."
North Carolina's Shoop vs. William & Mary's Shoop
It's rare that brothers meet on the football field in exact opposite roles as coaches. John Shoop has directed Butch Davis's offenses for the past four seasons, while brother Bob – four years the elder – has served as Laycock's defense coordinator for four years. The siblings will square off against one another on Saturday with the winner likely to deliver quips at the other's expense during Thanksgiving dinner.
John has drawn plenty of criticism during his time in Chapel Hill for a lack of productivity, but the Tar Heels have improved on their statistical rankings this season, averaging 364.3 yards (69th nationally) and scoring 26.0 points (70th) per game. Bob, on the other hand, has received plenty of praise in directing a defense that ranks 29th nationally (318.1 ypg) and eighth in scoring defense (16.0 ppg).
John has developed T.J. Yates into a solid quarterback during his senior season, completing 133 of his 203 passing attempts for 1,635 yards, 11 touchdowns and three interceptions. Meanwhile, the Tribe has struggled to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks, ranking 89th in sacks (1.29), which helps to explain a pass defense ranking of 62nd (205.1 ypg).
How the opposing Shoops attack that variable will go a long way in determining which brother emerges with bragging rights. Not that either of the brothers will admit to any sibling rivalry taking place on the field on Saturday.
"This isn't about me going against Bob," John said. "… This is between the players that we're coaching and that's how we're both approaching it."
Bob made similar comments this week, telling the the Richmond Times-Dispatch, "I think we'll both be very relieved when this is over."