A significant step for the University of Rhode Island football team was met with excitement but not with surprise in the locker room celebration at Delaware Thursday night.
And the Rams are working to make sure it’s not their only party this season.
“They were excited to win the football game, but I was most impressed that it wasn’t like, ‘Oh my gosh,’” head coach Jim Fleming said. “They went in and expected to win and they walked out with a victory. It was very easy to get them settled in and looking at what we have left ahead. We certainly enjoyed and celebrated each other in the locker room, but it was a very quick transition to focusing in on the next one and staying in the process.”
URI beat No. 15 Delaware 21-19 Thursday for its first season-opening win since 2009 and its first win over a Top 25 team since 2011. The progress made last year, when the Rams won two of their last four games and suffered three losses by three points or less, continued in a big way.
“Any time you put in a large amount of work, an early-season victory is everything that I thought was necessary for us to be able to take a step forward this year,” Fleming said. “The talent level has been on the rise. It’s been a question of our playing that was the critical part. There was a recognition of optimism at the Villanova game last year and I think we’ve built on that since then.”
The Blue Hens were picked third in the Colonial Athletic Association’s preseason poll, while URI brought up the rear in the 12-team circuit. On the field Thursday, the teams appeared to be on level footing throughout. They played to a scoreless draw in the first quarter before Delaware took a 10-7 lead into halftime. The Rams outscored the Blue Hens 14-3 in the third quarter to take a lead they never relinquished.
Wide receiver Aaron Parker scored on a direct snap run to give URI a 14-10 lead early in the third quarter. After a Delaware field goal, quarterback JaJuan Lawson made a highlight-reel play for another score, scrambling out of trouble and finding Tyler Burke for a 57-yard touchdown that made it 21-13.
Delaware made it 21-19 on a touchdown with 6:45 to go in the fourth quarter, but failed to convert the two-point try that would have tied the game. URI killed the clock from there, giving up the ball on a punt with 4:41 left but getting it right back when Justin Hogan forced a fumble that Brandon Ginnetti recovered. The ensuing drive allowed the Rams to take the clock deep into the final minute. Delaware’s final possession started with 16 seconds left on its own 9-yard line and went nowhere.
“The turnover late, the defense making a couple of huge, huge takeaways with physical play was critical,” Fleming said. “Confidence-wise, it certainly helps to be able to go in there and win a tight football game on the road. Maybe it was a step forward from being in tight football games in the past that went the other way. It’s certainly a confidence builder, and we just have to continue to work on execution to make sure we give ourselves the best chance to win every week.”
Lawson finished 13 of 21 for 170 yards and a touchdown, while also running for 46 yards. Running back Zoe Bryant, making his first start, tallied 81 yards on the ground as the Rams out-rushed the Blue Hens 160 to 145.
Junior college transfer Branyan Javier-Castillo led the defense with 11 tackles and Zay Hill had seven. Special teams also shined, with Justice Antrum returning a fumble off a botched punt for URI’s first score.
The most important column on the stat sheet was turnover margin. The Rams have been plagued by giveaways in recent seasons but won the battle this time with three fumble recoveries. URI’s lone turnover was an interception on a Hail Mary throw on the final play of the first half.
“We held in it,” Fleming said. “We won the turnover margin and we did the things necessary to win the game.”
They did not, however, play as well as they hoped. That a sub-par performance could yield a road win over a top 25 team offers its own reason for optimism, but the Rams are focused only on what went wrong.
“I think there was a lot left out on the field,” Fleming said. “Like I told them after the game, they went on the road, faced a CAA opponent, came away with a victory, which can’t be understated. It was a very difficult place to play and a very good team we had to beat. But there were a lot of things, when you look back at it, that we can do so much better. And I think our kids are focused on doing that.”
The next opportunity for a big step comes Saturday with the home opener against Albany, another conference opponent.
“We’ve got the first step taken,” Fleming said. “Now we’ve got a very tough opponent in Albany and we’re focused on that right now.”