KINGSTON — Losing season after losing season. Embarrassing, blow-out defeats. Turnovers, penalties, self-inflicted losses.

The University of Rhode Island football team has been so far down the past few seasons that most fans bypassed talk of firing the coach and skipped ahead to calling for the entire dissolution of the program.

The 2018 season was a chance for the Rams to put an end to talk like that. Their response ultimately wasn’t as emphatic as they’d like, but a 24-21 win over the University of New Hampshire on Saturday secured their first winning season in 17 years.

“This victory is significant in terms of achieving a winning status,” URI coach Jim Fleming said, opening his postgame press conference flanked by his four senior captains. “Kind of a low bar. Our whole program is built to become a champion. We fought through a very long season with a lot of ups and downs. We were able to hold it together the best we could, but we weren’t able to close games out in November.

“I felt bad that I was unable to present them with the opportunity to compete for and win a championship. Can never be diminished that this group came into a program that was under extreme scrutiny, [with people asking] is football important enough to keep here at the University of Rhode Island. These guys proved that it damn well is.”

Fleming had tears in his eyes during his opening statement. The game was the final go-round for URI’s 18 graduating players, and they left a lasting mark on the program, and the regular-season finale.

Senior captain D.J. Stewart intercepted an overthrown pass in the fourth quarter that held off a surging Wildcat offense and sealed the victory. Stewart wraps up his career with 230 total tackles and six picks to his name.

“It felt great,” he said. “The whole game I was [thinking], at some point I have to make a play to end this game. The last play, I saw the ball in the air and thought, there’s no way I’m dropping this one.

“I’m speechless. Emotions were really high. It was love in the atmosphere. I was happy, proud. We did what a lot of people thought we couldn’t do.”

The Rams had shot out to a 17-0 lead behind touchdowns from quarterback JaJuan Lawson and receiver Marven Beauvais, two more of the 18 seniors. After the Wildcats banked two Carlos Washington touchdowns, the Rams flexed their muscles on special teams to regain control of the game.

Ahmere Dorsey emerged as an elite return man for the Rams this season as a juco transfer, and his final return this season was likely the biggest of his career to date. Directly following Washington’s second TD, Dorsey took the kickoff 95 yards for his third return score of the season.

“I’ve been very impressed with the kid Dorsey,” UNH coach Sean McDonnell said. “Great, great execution on their part. They have done a great job of utilizing his abilities.”

Dorsey’s 95-yarder put him over 1,000 return yards, the first time a URI player has ever surpassed that plateau in a single year. He also gained 245 yards while heading the team’s wildcat look.

Lawson didn’t have his finest performance in his final game at quarterback, but after missing the middle portion of the season, he was happy just to be out on the field.

“A roller coaster,” he said of his season. “That’s been our season through and through. Had its ups and downs. It just sucks that we can’t be here when the guys push a little more forward next year.”

That was the running theme for all of the Ram seniors on Saturday: selflessness. Using an age-old tale of being ‘three feet from paydirt,’ the Rams rallied around each other and played for the guy next to them, not themselves.

“It’s nice to go out and play with your brothers,” senior linebacker Justin Hogan said. “This team is a family. There’s so much love for each other. Every game was so passionate.

“I truly believe every guy believes [in the three-more-feet mantra]. If we’re down seven, down 14, down 21, we’re not going to give up. We’re going to keep chopping and chopping. Eventually a play will come.”

“We will always be indebted to the group that played today,” Fleming said, looking at the four captains. “I think these guys will push three more feet in everything they do in their lives. They’ll be extremely successful, quality people. Great dudes.”

The Rams have proved they can play with just about anybody in the CAA, after being picked in the preseason to finish 12th (out of 12 teams). UNH’s McDonnell wasn’t surprised in the slightest by URI’s resurgent year.

“I saw it coming,” McDonnell said. “You saw at the end of the year [last season] when Lawson became the starting quarterback. This ain’t a surprise. The league is quarterback-driven. That kid is a very good football player.

“If you’ve been around the league a long time, there has been a bunch of teams that have been picked last, second-to-last, that have found a way to get up to the top of the league.”

“It’s time to change the guard,” Fleming said of the road ahead for his program. “We’ve got a good university here, a good football program that now all of a sudden has respectability. We were picked to finish [last in the CAA], probably every time we’ve been around.”

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