DURHAM, N.C. — Let's be clear here: Richmond could have lost its season opener -- and maybe should have lost it. Richmond's coach was appointed to that position just 10 days before the start of the seaon, 26 freshmen and sophomores had their names listed on the two-deep pre-game depth chart and Richmond's starting quarterback was coming back from a blown-out knee.
But with this team, there's a special feel to it.
Granted, it's way too early to make any claims that this Spider team can match what occurred in 2008 with the team overcoming mid-season adversity to win a national championship. But based on what was seen in Richmond's 23-21 victory Saturday night, there are signs of promise after what had been an ugly few days leading up to the game.
Possibly the most impressive aspect to come out of Saturday's game was Richmond's ability to respond. Twice, Duke went ahead with a touchdown to get a four-point lead. Twice, Richmond had about a three-minute drive to respond with its own touchdown and steal momentum away from Duke.
It was those quick responses that showed the mental strength of the team; something that could carry the Spiders a long way this season.
"We've been saying this since camp started," senior wide receiver Tre Gray said. "This energy, this feeling is starting to come out. This is a special team and we feel like this is our year."
Gray was instrumental in getting that feeling going. On each of the two second-half scoring drives, Gray caught a pair of passes on third-and-longs to extend the drives. But more importantly was how he did it.
Both times, the catches were past the first-down marker but Gray got far more than the needed yards for the first down. With his quickness, Gray was able to cut and leave Blue Devils helpless to catch him. The first catch went for 48 yards, the second for 33 yards.
The 48-yard catch was his longest of his career, and could have gone for another 29 yards for a touchdown had Gray not gotten tired.
"I got a little tired, I'm not going to lie," Gray said with a laugh. "I told my coach I'm going need to condition more if they [are] going have me running around like this."
He even made an impact in the weeks leading up to the opener at Wallace Wade Stadium. When the news of former coach Latrell Scott's resignation, he was the one who addressed the team. He also told younger players the key winning at Wallace Wade Stadium, something he has now done two times in his career, which had 32,741 fans in attendance Saturday night.
"I told them to relax and just have fun," Gray said before practice Wednesday. "It's a bigger atmosphere, that's all it is."
The team seemed to have heeded his advice. Players appeared loose even before kick-off, with players dancing around and firing up the Richmond crowd that made the roughly three-hour drive to Durham, N.C.
The team's ability to play with that type of looseness and confidence can be traced to last year. That team went 6-5 despite a slew of injuries. Half of those wins were decided by less than a touchdown with two of them going to overtime.
Despite not making the playoffs, the team was able to develop chemistry that carried over into the start of training camp this year. That bond only grew stronger during Scott's resignation.
"Adversity brings a team together," redshirt junior linebacker Darius McMillan said. "I wouldn't put it all on [Scott's resignation]. We were a close-knit team with coach Scott and we are now."
McMillan said that this team may be even tighter than the team was in 2008. And with other Colonial Athletic Association favorites losing their season-openers, Richmond will need that mental strength to help it win in its new role as the favorite, starting next Saturday against Wagner.