CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. -- The University of Richmond football team hadn't been No. 1 in almost three months.
The Spiders' second loss of the season, to Villanova University on Sept. 27, made them lose their No. 1 ranking. The team's third loss, to James Madison University on Oct. 11, made its chances at a second-consecutive Colonial Athletic Association championship and a second-consecutive playoff berth slim.
But Richmond's 24-7 win against the University of Montana on Friday night made it No. 1 again -- Football Championship Subdivision national champions for the first time in school history. The team finished the season with a 13-3 record, the most wins in program history, and a nine-game winning streak, the longest since 1998.
"The guys had a closed-door meeting," first-year head coach Mike London said about the team's response to the James Madison loss. "We still could make the playoffs. ... the ultimate goal was to be here and to win this game."
Richmond received an at-large bid for the playoffs and played only the first of its four playoff games at home. The team beat Eastern Kentucky University during the first round, second-seeded Appalachian State -- the three-time defending national champions -- during the quarterfinals, the third-seeded University of Northern Iowa during the semifinals and the fourth-seeded Grizzlies for the championship at Finley Stadium in Chattanooga, Tenn.
"It was something special," London said. "They could have been Goliath, and it wouldn't have made a difference."
For the first time during the playoffs, Richmond built a decisive halftime lead. At halftime during their first three playoff games, the Spiders were tied, down by one and up by four. Against Montana, the Spiders headed to the locker room winning 21-0.
"If we keep them off the scoreboard they can't win," sophomore linebacker Eric McBride said. "We had an early lead and we knew we weren't going to give it up."
Senior defensive lineman Lawrence Sidbury Jr. said the defense had sharpened its technique this week during practice to be able to get around Montana's physical offensive line and make senior quarterback Cole Bergquist move his feet. Sidbury had a career-high four out of the team's seven sacks, bringing his career total to 20.5, which is fourth all-time at Richmond.
"We try to get as much pressure on the quarterback as we can," Sidbury said. "I think we just gave an unbelievable effort. We looked at each other and said, 'Let's go' ... We didn't do anything special except play hard."
Senior running back Josh Vaughan also secured his place in program history by scoring the 20th rushing touchdown of the season and the 34th of his career, which ties him with his former teammate Tim Hightower, Richmond class of 2008. Vaughan's 162 rushing yards brought him to 3,379 for his career, moving him past Barry Redden to take third place.
"I was just being hungry," Vaughan said, "just trying to get extra yards ... plus it was the national championship."
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London said Vaughan, who entered the game as the CAA's top running back, proved that he was also one of the best backs in the country. Senior fullback John Crone said it was fun to block for players as hungry as Vaughan and quarterback Eric Ward, who was second on the team with 46 yards.
Ward also threw a touchdown pass to true freshman Garrett Wilkins and, for the first time in his career, caught a 23-yard touchdown pass from Crone. He finished with 96 passing yards, the longest of which was to sophomore wide receiver Kevin Grayson for 23 yards.
"On offense, everybody wanted it," Ward said. "It was a long wait to get to this game."
Sidbury said the team had been talking in practices and meetings throughout the week about making sure the players gave everything they had in this game. London said he made sure the team started off Friday morning and afternoon getting ready for the game.
"I thought in Northern Iowa we came out like robots," London said. "We had to play Montana, and we had to beat them. The one thing we could control was our mindset."
London said he had heard Montana fans say they had booked tickets for flights once Richmond beat Appalachian State, assuming that a game against Richmond would be an easy win.
"I guess the only ones who believed we could do this were people inside the Richmond program," London said.
But the Spiders won the way they always have, using a combination of receptions and rushes to score on offense and keep their opponent from scoring by creating turnovers on defense. The Spiders forced the Grizzlies to attempt a 33-yard field goal at the end of its first possession, which kicker Brody McKnight missed.
"That killed us to get no points out of that first drive," said junior Montana wide receiver and kickoff returner Marc Mariani, who led the team with 172 receiving yards, 71 kickoff return yards and eight punt return yards. "At the end of the day it didn't really matter about the individual statistics."
During the second quarter, sophomore defensive lineman Martin Parker sacked Bergquist and forced a fumble, which junior defensive back Michael Ireland picked up and returned two yards.
"In the first half they were making plays and we weren't," junior linebacker Shawn Lebsock said. "It's as simple as that."
Richmond did have some miscues of its own, including junior Andrew Howard's missed 28-yard field goal as time expired at the end of the first half. But Howard had converted all three point-after-touchdown attempts, and once Montana scored off a four-yard rush from sophomore running back Chase Reynolds, the Spiders took over.
McBride returned his second interception of the season -- the team's 29th -- 21 yards to set up a four-play scoring drive. Junior punter Brian Radford's converted a 39-yard field goal attempt with 6:54 left in the game, and at the end of Richmond's last drive, London sent in senior backup quarterback Will Healy, who was playing the last game of his career in his hometown.
"We had to get the vice mayor of Chattanooga in the game," London said, referencing Healy's father's run for mayor. "We wanted him to end the game fittingly in his hometown."
The game was particularly meaningful for the Richmond seniors, who have been a part of the most successful four years of football in school history. The championship was the program's 39th win during the last four seasons; the previous record was 30 wins between 1997 and 2000.
Montana finished the season with a 14-2 record. It had beaten Texas State University, Weber State University and No. 1 James Madison to reach the championship.
"It's hard right now to discuss, but I'm proud of this football team," coach Bobby Hauck said. "They came a million miles from August and I'm proud to be their coach."
Montana had played in four championships and won two. On their way to the 2000 championship game, the Grizzlies won a quarterfinal game against the Spiders, who had never before played in the FCS championship.
"We're always trying to prove that we're No. 1 in the country," McBride said, "and I think that we did that tonight."
Contact staff writer Barrett Neale at email@example.com.
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