The University of Rhode Island football team (2-8, 1-6) earned their first road victory in three years with a dominant 44-14 outing at Elon University (2-8, 1-6) Saturday afternoon in North Carolina.
The Rams headed into Rhodes Stadium hoping for a change, with their coveted Governor’s Cup victory over Brown University on Oct. 1 becoming a distant memory. With a string of losses including an 84-7 thrashing dished out by No. 5 James Madison, head coach Jim Fleming and company returned to the drawing board during the bye week.
“It was really a spectacular effort of our whole coaching staff and team just to overcome the previous game we had,” Fleming said. “The mantra was just get back on the mat, and go compete, and put it together, and we did that.”
The Rams, despite the week of reassessment, were unable to break old habits, as they again started the game from behind, courtesy of what has been their most glaring vice of late: interceptions. Sophomore quarterback Jordan Vazzano made a costly mistake in the game’s first offensive play from his team’s own 25-yard line, as Elon defensive lineman Dondre Howell snagged one and took it back into the end zone.
The opening drive, however, would be the only semblance of Rhode Island’s past struggles. The team gained momentum later in the quarter when they mounted a drive that was aided heavily by a costly roughing the passer penalty on third-and-four, and later culminated with a 36-yard field goal from Justin Rohrwasser. The tide shifted further on Elon’s next drive, which appeared to be bad news for URI. The Phoenix marched down to the red zone and lined up for the 31-yard field goal. Kicker John Gallagher missed wide right, squandering an opportunity to extend the lead, and keeping Elon stuck at seven, where it would remain for most of the afternoon.
Elon maintained a 7-3 lead until midway through the second quarter when Vazzano got into a rhythm. He capped off a 65-yard drive with a 13-yard touchdown pass to Marven Beauvais, giving the Rams the lead with less than two minutes left in the half. The defense then ignited, thwarting an Elon drive, as defensive back D.J. Stewart intercepted quarterback Daniel Thompson for 25 yards to the Phoenix 45. Vazzano gave URI the big play it needed to get on the scoreboard one final time before time halftime when he connected with receiver Aaron Parker for 20 yards. Rohrwasser, who would finish the game with URI single-game record of 14 points (three field goals and five extra points), kicked a 23-yarder to give the Rams a 13-7 lead going into the break.
Fleming was pleased by the balanced effort, as the Rams have rarely been able to find success on both sides of the ball for an extended period of time.
“Our kids continued to battle, and it kind of went our way,” Fleming said. “We didn’t turn it over, we kept big plays off the board and were able to move the chains with some consistency we hadn’t seen.”
URI picked up where they left off at the end of the half and continued to dismantle their opponent’s defense, in all aspects of the offensive game. Harold Cooper, who has been inconsistent since returning from injury in the beginning of the season, allowed his team to seize complete control of the game with a career-high 155 rushing yards, the bulk of which came off a 70-yard rushing touchdown early in the fourth quarter to stretch the lead to 30-7. Cooper’s run marked the longest for a Ram since 2011 and furthered a streak of 37 unanswered points for URI. The all-purpose back put his special teams prowess on display as well, with a 98-yard kick return touchdown, following Elon’s first offensive touchdown of the day and first score since the game’s opening snap, which added salt to the wounds of an already despondent home crowd.
“He ran extremely hard,” Fleming said. “I told him we needed a big game out of him and I think he stepped up to the challenge, really got us going in the right direction and made a couple of spectacular Harold Cooper runs.”
The final score settled in at 44-14, with Rhode Island putting together their most complete performance of the season. Vazzano bounced back from a couple of sloppy outings, throwing for 226 yards on 15-for-24 passing with two touchdowns and one interception. The signal caller particularly clicked with Parker, who totaled four receptions for 86 yards to go with a touchdown. He caught the long reception of the afternoon a couple of plays before his seven-yard score, a 50-yard reception, which was a welcome sign for an offense that has frequently proven to be stagnant in their passing attack.
The victory was the first on the road for the Rams in 62 games, with the last one coming against Albany in overtime in 2013. Aside from historical significance, the win was a step forward for a program desperate to reverse several years of futility and despair.
“It’s incredibly important,” Fleming said. “The way we did it was equally as important. It was a significant victory and a significant character statement of our football team, and I’m very excited what we have to build.”
URI looks to progress further toward their goal with a victory in their season finale against the Towson Tigers Saturday at noon at Meade Stadium.