Don't look now, but the recent national champions are poised for a playoff run.
It wasn't just because the University of Richmond won a virtual elimination game against James Madison University on Saturday evening, but it was also the way the Spiders played that gives hope that their season will continue in December.
The biggest change was at the quarterback position. Sophomore John Laub returned from a broken wrist suffered against Elon University on Sept. 18 and gave the Spider offense a dimension that it had been lacking since quarterback Aaron Corp was injured at the University of New Hampshire: The threat of a deep ball.
That skill was on display when Laub found wide receiver Tre Gray open down the middle of the field at about the James Madison 20-yard line and Gray ran it in for a 41-yard touchdown pass. Laub placed the ball perfectly, hitting Gray in-stride on his inside shoulder where a stumbling JMU defensive back had no chance to break up the pass.
"Tre made a great move and the [offensive] line protected well and gave me enough time to just put the ball up and Tre made a play," Laub said.
That was Laub's first career touchdown pass and the game was his first career start. He had played two series against Elon while Corp was injured before leaving with the broken wrist and he played sparingly last year as Eric Ward's backup.
Laub's impact wasn't limited to just passing the ball. His rushing numbers were modest (16 yards on five carries) but he showed a willingness to block. On a third-quarter run by Kendall Gaskins, Laub tried to block a Duke defender but was unable to and got caught up in the pile. He got up right away and continued playing and showed no ill effects from the hit.
To make Laub's 176-yard passing performance more impressive was the fact that he played the game with a soft cast on his left, non-throwing wrist. He wasn't cleared to play in the game until late last week when the pins from his wrist were removed.
"I've been waiting to get cleared the last couple of weeks," Laub said. "When they gave me the go, I was real excited."
But by no means is Laub a finished product. He overthrew his deep receivers by a step or two on occasion and had two costly interceptions late in the fourth quarter. But considering that it wasn't announced until Saturday afternoon that Laub would be playing, it was an impressive showing.
"John's a little rusty," Richmond coach Latrell Scott said. "But he gave us the ability to do some things we hadn't been able to do the past couple of weeks. He made some big throws but there are some things we have to clean up. I think he forced a couple of throws but that's him just trying to make a big play."
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Scott showed his faith in Laub's ability by having Laub throw the ball 29 times, the most since the Spiders played at New Hampshire on Oct. 9. The 187 passing yards (senior cornerback Justin Rogers had an 11-yard pass that fell one yard shy of a touchdown) were the most passing yards since a season-high 265 passing yards against Elon.
Not only was Laub's return that gave a lift to the passing game. Junior wide receiver Donte Boston returned after missing six games with a broken rib suffered against Elon. He had a crucial 17-yard catch on third down during Richmond's drive that led to Richmond's 18-yard field goal to tie the game at 10 (15 yards were added onto the play after a JMU player was flagged for hitting Boston after the whistle).
For the day, Boston had three catches for 28 yards in his first full game of the season. He was suspended for the season-opener at the University of Virginia and left the Elon game one play into the second half.
With the Richmond defense playing its typical physical style (JMU averaged just 3.3 yards per play) and Laub and Boston giving some much-needed energy to the offense, there's no telling how far the Spiders can go if they make the playoffs. But if Saturday's virtual playoff game is any indication the rest of the Colonial Athletic Association and the nation should not take these Spiders lightly.
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