WILLIAMSBURG, NOV. 23 -- Understand this about William and Mary's appearance in the first round of the Division I-AA football playoffs Saturday: The Tribe expected to be here all along. But the path the team used finally to climb the mountain wasn't quite what the players envisioned when practice began in August.

The Tribe, 9-2 and riding a seven-game winning streak, will participate in its third playoff in the last five years when it faces Yankee Conference champion Massachussetts (8-1-1) at 12:30 at Walter J. Zable Stadium.

"This has been our goal since the season started," said fullback Tyrone Shelton, one of two 1,000-yard rushers for the Tribe. "Now that the playoffs are here, though, we have to treat it like a whole new season. I'm a little nervous for the first time in a while."

Seventh-ranked William and Mary, which lost in the first round of the playoffs last year to Furman, 24-10, has been under the gun almost since the year started. The Tribe was ranked in the top 10 in the preseason and had a veteran team with almost all the key players back from 1989.

But the Tribe lost its opener to The Citadel, 34-31. It was a jolt that few could have anticipated.

"We took it for granted that since we were good last year we would automatically be good this year," said Shelton. "Looking back now, I think that game was a wake-up call for us. It kind of put an urgency to the season that we had been lacking."

After its next two games, the Tribe battled Division I-A Virginia evenly for a half. But the Cavaliers won, 63-35, and suddenly William and Mary's postseason hopes were very shaky.

The turning point might have come the following week. The Tribe played at Delaware, where some unusual things have happened. Two years ago, for instance, a touchdown on a fourth-down play with less than a minute left apparently turned defeat into victory. But Delaware scored with five seconds left to win, 38-35.

This time the Tribe won, 22-12, and hasn't looked back since.

"Our season could have gone either way as we approached the Delaware game," said linebacker Mark Hughes. "But it was a close game and we managed to win. That was the boost we had to have at that stage of the season."

The Tribe promptly embarked on a string of high-octane performances offensively. For the next five games it averaged more than 500 yards of total offense and when the offense finally slowed up last week against Richmond, the defense came to life with a school-record 13 sacks.

In Massachusetts, the Tribe will oppose a team that experienced its first flat week of the year last Saturday. Massachusetts was blitzed by New Hampshire, 36-18, spoiling the Minutemen's hopes of an undefeated season.

The Minutemen gave up more than 500 yards after leading their conference in total defense most of the season.

Ten of the 11 starters on defense are underclassmen. But until the New Hampshire game, that unit had played like veterans.

"People have called us a Cinderella team," said Coach Jim Reid. "But last week our guys turned into mice and pumpkins."

The Minutemen will start a true freshman quarterback, Dave McGovern. He will be the fourth starter to be used at the position since regular Gary Wilcos suffered a career-ending neck injury in Game 6.

Freshman tailback John Johnson leads the Minutemen's rushers with 709 yards on 161 carries. Massachusetts averages 383 yards per game but nearly two-thirds of that has come via the run.

It has a veteran offensive line with three starters making first-team all-conference.

The question for its defense is whether it can stop a versatile William and Mary attack that averages 241.5 yards rushing and 257.3 passing. William and Mary leads Division I-AA in total offense.

"They were so fast on film they ran right off our screen," said Reid. "Andy Talley {Villanova's coach} called me Monday and said we better strap it up because we've never seen anything like what William and Mary will do offensively."