The folks at the CAA Football offices often tout it: 11 of the conference’s 12 teams have qualified for the FCS playoffs since 2015, a remarkable demonstration of league depth.
Absent from that party is Rhode Island. The Rams, while enjoying a fair amount of national attention on the basketball hardwood in recent memory, have long endured a perception as the CAA’s black sheep on the gridiron. An 84-7 loss at James Madison in 2016 did not help matters, attracting publicity for all the wrong reasons. Prior to that fiasco, a November 2010 announcement was made that, at the time, Rhode Island had accepted an invitation to join the Northeast Conference as an associate member for football only. Had the NEC move gone through as originally scheduled to take effect in 2013, it would have constituted a clear competitive step back in the FCS landscape for the Rhody program.
Fast forward to the spring of 2021, as odd as that may still sound for a football season, and URI is still hanging in there in the CAA. These days, though, the Rams are making headlines of the positive variety. The perennial underdogs put the stacked CAA North division on notice by shocking then-No. 6 Villanova 40-37 in Pennsylvania on Saturday. The overtime win was Rhode Island’s first triumph over a Top 25 foe since taking down then-No. 15 Delaware 21-19 on August 30, 2018. In fact, the upset was the Rams’ first CAA victory since the 2018 season finale against New Hampshire that clinched a winning season that year.
The 2019 season was marked by a bevy of narrow CAA losses by the Rams, who dropped five league contests by one possession.
“We had a tough go in 2019 closing things out,” head coach Jim Fleming told HERO Sports on Monday’s CAA Football media Zoom.
That bitter reality made the overtime stunner at Villanova all the more sweet as an indicator of long-awaited program progress.
“We were able to go two three-and-outs [on defense] in a row at the end of the game, which was 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 [a full season] because it seems like an entirely different squad and an entirely different feel to the whole deal, but those games were heartbreaking.”
Fortunately for URI, Saturday’s win was anything but, and it was engineered by a pair of FBS transfers in running back Kevin Brown, Jr. (Massachusetts) and quarterback Kasim Hill (Maryland and Tennessee).
Brown Jr., just a redshirt freshman, dashed the Villanova defense for 141 yards and four touchdowns, becoming the first Ram with a quartet of rushing scores in one outing since it was done in 2004. Brown Jr. was named CAA Football Co-Offensive Player of the Week for his game-breaking efforts.
Said Fleming lightheartedly of his squad’s young featured back, “Kevin, I have a hard time even looking at as a transfer because we had really had him committed for two years before he made the egregious error of going and testing the waters at UMass for whatever reason.”
“I kinda feel like he’s always been ours.”
As for Hill, he has not always been Rhody’s QB, but one wouldn’t have known it from Saturday’s stellar performance. Hill went 18-of-28 passing for 246 yards and dotted the exclamation point on the win with an emphatic walk-off rushing touchdown in overtime.
“Kasim’s been a real blessing for us,” Fleming said. “He came in and 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 came and earned the spot.”
With the eye-catching upset, 1-0 Rhode Island has netted hard-earned votes in the Stats Perform FCS Top 25, setting up a high-stakes showdown with No. 18 Albany (1-1) this Saturday.
Kickoff in the capital city of New York State is set for 1 p.m. ET on FloSports. The Great Danes are smarting from an upset loss of their own at the hands of Maine, which improved to 1-1 with the win to further crowd the North division picture. When upstart Rhode Island and potent Albany collide, the Rams, far removed from 2019’s heartbreak and since bolstered by Brown Jr. and Hill, will seek to make that image all the murkier.