CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. -- John Crone, the University of Richmond's senior fullback, had an announcement to make.
"I just want y'all to know we just won the national championship," Crone said when he entered Richmond's post-game press conference. "I don't know if y'all saw that."
Crone, one of Richmond's four captains, had good reason to celebrate Richmond's 24-7 win Friday against the University of Montana in Chattanooga, Tenn. About three hours earlier, he had thrown the first pass of his career to junior quarterback Eric Ward.
"We've practiced it since week one," Crone said. "We always talk about it, 'We're never going to run it.'"
Richmond started its first drive on its own 34-yard line, moving downfield using the running game. Senior running back Josh Vaughan rushed five times for 28 yards, Ward rushed twice for 20 yards and Crone rushed once for three yards.
The only attempted pass was an incomplete one from Ward to sophomore wide receiver Kevin Grayson. But on third-and-two at the Montana 23, Vaughan headed to the sidelines. Ward told the offense he would be catching the ball instead of throwing it.
"I started giggling," Crone said. "Because I thought it was hilarious."
Ward took the snap, pitched it to Crone, and started running to his left. None of the Grizzlies' defenders thought to cover the quarterback.
"We were playing man coverage, and in that system no one was assigned to the quarterback," Montana coach Bobby Hauck said.
Crone said: "When I threw it, it was just slow motion. When I saw him open I knew I had to hit him, or I would never hear the end of it."
But Ward caught the pass cleanly around the 15-yard line and ran it into the end zone. Crone said he knew it would be a touchdown as soon as Ward had it.
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Junior kicker Andrew Howard converted the extra point, and Richmond had a 7-0 lead. The Spiders never fell behind, building a 21-0 halftime lead on two more touchdowns -- a five-yard run from Vaughan and a 13-yard pass from Ward to true freshman running back Garrett Wilkins.
"It was just a combination of the game plan and the guys wanting to execute," Ward said.
That execution led to the only national championship in any sport in school history. For a team that started the season 4-3, it doesn't get much better than that.
"This team loves each other," Richmond coach Mike London said, "and this year this team is the team of destiny. I can't even describe how these guys played like warriors."
Crone is one of several Richmond players who suffered injuries throughout the season. He missed the homecoming game against Georgetown University on Oct. 25 because of an injured lower leg. An injured ankle kept him out of the Spiders' first two playoff games, against Eastern Kentucky University on Nov. 29 and Appalachian State University on Dec. 6.
This was a continued theme for Crone, who missed two games during his sophomore season because of injury. He started every game his junior season, but was often playing below full strength. Entering this season, he hadn't scored a rushing touchdown since his freshman year or caught a touchdown pass since his sophomore year.
That changed this season. When Crone did play, he showed why he was named to the Colonial Athletic Association's second-team All-Conference. He scored four rushing touchdowns and one receiving touchdown.
"This team has been through a lot this year, a lot," London said. "Some players have lost loved ones. There have been some tough, tough times for us as a team. You saw today the character of this team, how resilient we are."
Ward also had one of the best seasons of his career, accumulating more than 200 passing yards during six different games. His 17 touchdown passes and eight rushing touchdowns matched his sophomore season statistics, but his 2,808 passing yards surpassed the 2,341 of his sophomore season.
With one more season left, Ward is second all-time at Richmond in pass completions and touchdown passes with 578 and 45. He is third all-time at Richmond in career passing yards with 6,573.
"Eric's stats speak for themselves," said London, who singled out Ward as key to the team's success.
One of Ward's 200-yard passing games came during last year's Football Championship semifinals against Appalachian State. Despite his success, the Spiders lost 55-35, and weeks later, they also lost their head coach.
Then-coach Dave Clawson left to become the offensive coordinator at the University of Tennessee, and London, who played at Richmond from 1980 to 1983, took over. Under his direction, the Spiders have won 13 games, the most in school history.
They avenged the loss by beating Appalachian State this season in Boone, N.C., during the FCS quarterfinals. They went one step further than they did last year by winning in the semifinals when they played at the University of Northern Iowa. Now, they are national champions.
"To have an opportunity to win it all in my rookie season," London said, "I can't tell you what it means to me. I just want to share this moment with these guys. This is something no one will ever be able to take away from us."
Contact staff writer Barrett Neale at firstname.lastname@example.org
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