By Derek Mancini
Rhode Island came into the 2018 season ready to prove that they were a different team from year's past, and the Rams kicked the season off with a bang last Thursday night in impressive fashion. Kingston's football team got a statement win over No. 15/16 Delaware on the road, beating the Blue Hens by a score of 21-19. It marked the first win for Rhody over a ranked opponent for the first time since 2011. It was also Rhody's first season-opening victory since 2009.
The talent in all three phases of the game was on display for Rhody in arguably the biggest win in the Jim Fleming era. The Rams struck first early in the second quarter after capitalizing on a bad snap over the Delaware punter's head. The ball was scooped up by Justice Antrum for a 2-yard touchdown. The defense also had two big turnovers, while the offense made some clutch plays on key third-down conversions.
Now, the Rams will come home to Meade Stadium Saturday afternoon to take on Albany in the home opener. Unlike the Rams, Albany had a tough first week of the season, losing 33-7 at Pittsburgh. Albany finished last season 4-7 record, just one win better than URI. The Rams will now look to ride the wave of momentum from last Thursday's win into Saturday's matchup. Here are some things we learned about the Rams last week and what to watch going into week 2.
Bryant Jr. and Pires Provide a Dangerous, Versatile 1-2 punch
The biggest question surrounding the Rams coming into the season was who would be the starting running back, and on Thursday night we found the answer. It looks like head coach Jim Fleming found his lead back, and that's redshirt junior Zoe Bryant Jr. In his first career start on offense, Bryant really opened some eyes against Delaware. The 6-0, 227-pound running back rushed for 81 yards on 20 attempts and averaged 4.1 yards per attempt. His biggest run came on an 18-yard burst down the sideline, showing off his ability of being a big-run threat.
Sophomore Matt Pires also shined against Delaware, both on the ground and as a receiver. Pires had 28 yards on three carries, and added another 27 yards on two catches, combining for 55 yards on the night. One of Pires' catches came on a critical third down, when quarterback JaJuan Lawson connected with him on a 19-yard play on third-and-6. The play extended the drive that lead to an eventual Rams touchdown.
The Rams rushed for 160 yards on the night against a tough Delaware defense. Bryant and Pires showed that they could be a dangerous running back tandem for the Rams this season, along with the legs of Lawson (46 rushing yards). Bryant looks like he could handle the role as the lead back, while Pires looks like a perfect complement with his ability to be a threat in the passing game. These two could cause a lot of problems for defenses throughout CAA Football this season. Look for the Rams to continue the momentum with the running game this week against Albany, a team that got scorched for 232 rushing yards by Pittsburgh in Week 1.
Third-down Efficiency Was Big
Overall, the passing game struggled in Week 1 against Delaware, but the Rams made the plays when they really needed to. Redshirt senior quarterback JaJuan Lawson was 13-for-21 for 170 yards passing, with one touchdown pass and one interception. Delaware's defense did a great job covering the Rams' receivers, giving up no more than 60 yards to any individual receiver. After only passing for 34 yards in the first half, the passing game seemed to pick up when junior receiver Aaron Parker entered the game in the second half. Parker didn't play the first half due to a suspension after being ejected for the season finale in 2017. Parker proved to be a huge difference maker for this passing game when he came in, making a team-best three catches for 35 yards along with a 1-yard touchdown run.
The common trend for Rhody's offense was that they were able to make big plays on third down that helped extend critical drives that led to touchdowns. They were 5-for-12 on third-down conversions (42 percent), including 5-for-5 in the third quarter. With Delaware up 10-7 at the half, Rhody's defense forced a turnover on the opening drive of the second half. The ensuing possession showed off the Rams' ability to make the clutch plays on third down. After driving into Delaware territory, Rhody converted on third down three different times. Lawson first hit Matt Pires on third-and-6 for 19 yards, then later connected sophomore wide out Isaiah Coulter on third-and-five for 9 yards. The biggest play of the drive came when Lawson connected with Parker on a 26-yard strike on third-and-9 to get the offense into the red zone at the Delaware 5-yard line. The 11-play, 69-yard drive led to the Rams taking a 14-10 lead on the Parker 1-yard touchdown run.
On the next possession, Lawson showed off his speed when he converted a third-and 12 for a first down on a 14-yard run. Then, on third-and-4, Lawson rolled to his right to avoid the pressure, and hit senior tight end Tyler Burke for a 57-yard touchdown pass, giving the Rams a 21-13 lead. If the Rams can continue to have success on third-down this season, they will be tough for any team to beat. It's also a good sign that they are able to extend drives on third down both with the passing and running game.
The Defense is Who We Thought They Were
The Rams' defense got off to a roaring start on opening night, causing two big turnovers that helped them eventually pull off the win. Freshman defensive end Tyler Wipper forced the first fumble by Delaware running back Kani Kane, who for most of the game caused problems for the Rhody defense by rushing for 106 yards on 20 attempts. The fumble was recovered by senior linebacker Justin Hogan, who finished the game with six tackles and later forced the second fumble on Delaware. Hogan's forced fumble was recovered by junior defensive end Brandon Ginnetti in the fourth quarter.
The defense showed that they also have big-play potential. After Delaware scored a touchdown late to cut the Rams' lead to 21-19, senior defensive back Zay Hill's strong coverage prevented the potential game-tying 2-point conversion.
Although the defense struggled at times giving up big plays in both the passing and running games of Delaware, they proved that can sniff out game-changing plays and give the offense more chances to score. It also looks like the defense will get production up-and-down their defensive unit. Junior linebacker Branyan Javier-Castillio had a massive debut, racking up a team-high 11 tackles, including 1.5 tackles for loss.
Rhode Island senior journalism major Derek Mancini will check in throughout the season with his Tuesday Take for GoRhody.com. Before his current internship with the communications office, Mancini interned with WPRI 12. In high school, he was part of a state championship football team for North Providence in 2013.