BILLINGS — William & Mary head football coach Mike London has been down this road before.
In 2008, London coached Richmond to the FCS national championship with a 24-7 victory over Montana at Finley Stadium in Chattanooga, Tennessee. That was 14 years ago — an eternity in sports — but it’s a game that’s still familiar to football fans in this neck of the woods, and still familiar to London.
Now in his fourth season at resurgent William & Mary, London will take his next playoff shot against Montana State on Friday in a quarterfinal game at Bobcat Stadium. Kickoff is scheduled for 8:15 p.m., and the game will be broadcast on ESPN2.
William & Mary (11-1) is the fifth seed. MSU (11-1) is the No. 4 seed. It will be the first-ever meeting between the programs.
London hasn’t been in a better position as a coach since that 2008 season.
“When you get this far,” London told media members this week during a Colonial Athletic Association teleconference, “you want to go all the way.”
That goes without saying. London at least knows the formula.
If there’s one similarity between London’s Richmond team that won it all and his Tribe team this year, it’s that they exceled on the road.
Richmond went 7-2 away from home in 2008 (13-3 overall), including consecutive playoff victories at Appalachian State and Northern Iowa to reach the championship game.
So far this year, William & Mary is 6-0 on the road with its biggest test coming against a Montana State team that has won 19 in a row on its home turf, the longest active streak in the FCS.
London takes a pragmatic approach to playing in hostile postseason environments.
“Hats off to whatever environment the home team can create, but what doesn't change is it's a 100-yard field. It’s just like our field,” London said. “The red zone, the third-down plays, all the things like that don't change. All you can handle and all that matters is what happens between the white lines.
“It'll be colder, but within 100 yards are the expectations of doing a lot of the same things we've been doing. We've been doing it and doing it at a high level, executing at a high level. We know the expectations of executing.”
The Tribe is coming off a 54-14 second-round shellacking of Gardner-Webb. In winning its eighth straight game, the team established school playoff marks for points, total yards (608), rushing yards (302) and takeaways (6).
Defensively, William & Mary must contain a Montana State rushing attack that's been simply unstoppable, averaging of 330.9 yards per game led by the dual-QB threat of Tommy Mellott and Sean Chambers. MSU's running game ranks second in the FCS.
Meanwhile, the Tribe is eighth in the nation in scoring defense (19.8 ppg) and are in the top 10 in takeaways (24) and third -down conversion defense (31.6%).
“I'm looking forward to a great, physical, back-and-forth game,” London said.
Statistics aside, London’s playoff acumen can only be a benefit to William & Mary, just as the experience of Brent Vigen — from his time at North Dakota State to leading MSU to the title game last year — will help the Bobcats. The Tribe, though, hasn’t been to the semifinal round since 2009.
London went 24-5 in two seasons at Richmond, his alma mater, before taking over at FBS Virginia. He had just one winning season in six years with the Cavaliers and returned to the FCS at Howard in 2017, where he coached for two seasons (2017-18).
When Jimmye Laycock retired after nearly 40 years as the head coach at William & Mary in 2019, London was tabbed as his replacement. Four years into his tenure, the Tribe is a bona fide national title contender.
This year, London coached William & Mary to a share of the Colonial Athletic Association championship. The team had seven first-team All-CAA selection (which tied a program record), including linebacker John Pius, who was chosen as the league's defensive MVP, and cornerback Jalen Jones, the CAA's defensive rookie of year.
If the Tribe is to take the next step, it must do so by prevailing on the road at Bobcat Stadium, which has become one of the toughest places to win in the country.
“We’re continuing on the process toward another goal, and that's the opportunity to give yourself a chance to play for the national championship,” London said.
“If you really want to win championships in the FCS you’ve got to be able to win on the road. And that's going to be a huge thing for us.”
London, at least, has been down this road before.