HARRISONBURG — The perception of the program has changed.
Rhode Island has a winning record with two weeks left to play and is still alive for a potential FCS playoff bid.
“We’ve been pretty much the punching bag of the league for the last couple of years,” Rams senior quarterback JaJuan Lawson said. “Then last year, we started to make a little headway in the right direction. And when we all came in, we understood for us if the last thing we did at the university was at least get us going in the right direction, then that’s what we’re going to do.
“And that’s what we’ve done this year.”
The Rams, who visit Harrisonburg on Saturday for a showdown with No. 9 James Madison, aren’t the same version the Dukes pummeled 84-7 when the sides last met at Bridgeforth Stadium two years ago.
This Rhode Island team, which was picked to finish last in the Colonial Athletic Association preseason poll, opened the year with a win at Delaware, nearly knocked off FBS Connecticut in September and likely would be a victory or two better had Lawson not missed the entire month of October with a knee injury.
Lawson has thrown for 1,340 yards and 13 touchdowns while completing 70 percent of his passes over five starts this season. He tossed for 349 yards and three scores in his return to action last week during the Rams’ loss at Elon.
“We’ve got to find a way to get this one,” fifth-year Rhode Island coach Jim Fleming said. “That one gets us to six [wins] and six is a winning season and six is the first time it would happen since 2001, so obviously we’ve been poised in improving the program to where we can compete for these kinds of things and where we’re playing meaningful games in November. And that in of itself is a good mark of what we’ve done with the football program.”
Rhode Island already has three conference victories this season. The three in league play are the most the Rams have had since earning four in 2010 as they tallied only nine CAA wins during the seven seasons in-between.
And it was that embarrassing loss to JMU that started to ignite change for Fleming, his players and the school, according to the coach.
“That had tremendous significance in the sense it was unfathomed, it was unreal,” Fleming said, “and a major point that really got some people very restless around here in terms of ‘Why are we doing football?’
“That was the reality of the deal. You go down and lose 84-7 or whatever the hell it was and I’ve never been involved in a game like that or had to manage a team afterward, but we were able to go down the next week to Elon and we thumped them after a good off week.
“But it was a significant development in our football program and since then we’ve continued to advance.”
Fleming said the school has facility upgrades for the football program coming.
And both Fleming and Lawson said a pivotal point in this season’s success was winning at Delaware in Week 1.
Delaware is tied atop the league standings with Maine, but that first night of the season the Blue Hens turned the ball over three times while Rhode Island standouts Lawson and wide receiver Aaron Parker both accounted for a touchdown as the Rams escaped with a 21-19 win.
Victories over Albany, Harvard and Brown followed. The loss to Connecticut came by a touchdown and the one to Maine was decided on a last-second field goal. The only blowout setback came at Stony Brook with Lawson sidelined.
“We’ve gained respect from teams,” Lawson said. “We’re no longer the team that sneaks up on people.
“Early on you get the ‘You snuck up on Delaware’ or ‘You snuck up on them.’ Now it’s to the point where we’re not sneaking up on anybody and if that we beat you, we beat you, and that’s a good feeling now when you’re playing a game against a great team in a hostile environment.”
As for the playoffs, Fleming said how his team plays over the final two weeks — at JMU and against New Hampshire — determines whether or not it gets that shot at the postseason.
Rhode Island currently sits a 5-4 overall and 3-3 in the CAA.
“We need to go out and win ‘em both,” Fleming said. “We win ‘em both and we’ve got a chance to get into the playoffs.
“We may end up getting left at the damn alter knowing that eight [wins] is the magic number and seven is a coin toss, but that’s what we’re focused on doing.”