The missed opportunities of 2019 and the delayed fall season of 2020 gave way to one of the best wins in Rhode Island football history on Saturday.
The Rams opened their abbreviated spring season with a 41-37 overtime victory over No. 6 Villanova in Philadelphia. By opponent ranking, it’s URI’s best win since 2010, when it beat a third-ranked Villanova team.
“More than anything else, to be able to come off such a long delay and get a chance to come out 1-0, we’re just thrilled about that,” URI head coach Jim Fleming said. “It hasn’t happened much for us. On to the next one is our theme right now.”
URI started 1-0 in its 2018 breakout before faltering as it tried to take further steps in 2019, getting off to an 0-4 start with a series of close and crushing defeats. The season ended with URI sitting at 2-10. The postponement of the fall 2020 season to spring meant no opportunity for a quick bounce back.
Saturday’s game put the Rams in a similar position to many of the 2019 heartbreakers. They responded after a bad stretch in the third quarter then made key plays in each facet of the game in the final minutes.
“When it comes down to a game, the thing that really came to fruition for us is what we always preach – offense, defense and special teams,” Fleming said. “We were down 10 with less than six minutes left in the game. We came into the final part of regulation, we got a three-and-out and we were able to use the timeouts in our pocket to come down and kick the tying field goal. Then we ended up with a fortunate deal – our defense stepped up to the occasion. Our offense came and put it away. It was an incredible football game and one that we’re incredibly fortunate to have won. We worked extremely hard for the opportunity – 1-0 feels awfully good.”
URI trailed 34-24 following a Villanova field goal with 11:50 left in the fourth quarter, much of the deficit caused by a disastrous start to the third quarter. URI led 21-14 at halftime before getting outscored 17-3 in the third.
Starting the comeback, UMass transfer Kevin Brown, Jr. ran for 3 yards, and then 4 more on fourth-and-2. Brown punched it in – his fourth rushing touchdown of the day – to get the Rams within 34-31.
The Ram defense came up with a three-and-out to get the ball back to the offense, starting at the Villanova 49-yard line. Hill hit Ed Lee for 12 yards, then again for a big 19-yard play on third-and-13. Hill ran twice for 11 yards, and Brown added a 5-yard gain to set up a 22-yard field goal from C.J. Carrick on the final play of regulation.
After Villanova got a field goal to start overtime, Hill connected with Ivory Frimpong for 23 yards on Rhode Island’s first snap. Two plays later, Hill’s touchdown run ended the contest and gave URI its first league win since the 2018 season finale against New Hampshire.
“We were able to go two three-and-outs in a row at the end of the game and that’s really what our games came down to in 2019,” Fleming said. “We haven’t spent a lot of time talking about the last time we played because it seems like an entirely different squad and an entirely different feel to the whole deal. But those games were heartbreaking. When you look at Saturday’s game, it was very reminiscent of our triple overtime loss to Delaware, where we had an opportunity to close out on defense, we got a flag on third-and-whatever and ended up losing in triple overtime. Those kinds of wins are critically important and it establishes a path going forward. As I was hoping it would go, the ball bounced right for us.”
Brown starred in his debut with the Rams. A Massachusetts high school star, he was verbally committed to URI before switching late in the process to UMass. He was dismissed from the Minutemen program in 2019 and went back to his original plan to join the Rams. His arrival was heralded and he delivered, rushing for 141 yards and four touchdowns. Brown was named CAA Co-Offensive Player of the Week.
“He’s met every expectation,” Fleming said. “He’s a big back, he can run, he’s got some vision. He’s a power dude. He really gave us a big lift.”
Another transfer, Hill, was solid under center, completing 18 of 28 passes for 246 yards.
“Kasim has been a real blessing for us,” Fleming said. “We filled each other’s roles that we were looking for. He wanted a chance to get back and take the controls of a football program and he came in and earned the spot. We’re thrilled. His performance was good with the exception of a couple of things, but we can clean those up.”
Narragansett’s Jordan Reindeau made his first career start at right tackle and helped pave the way for Brown’s big day.
“You’ve got to give some really good credit to our offensive line,” Fleming said. “It’s not an easy defense to go against and I think our guys did a really good job of putting bodies on bodies and creating holes.”
URI received votes in the STATS FCS Top 25 and would likely move into the field with another victory. The chance comes Saturday with a trip to Albany.