In a game influenced heavily by each teams' special teams units, the University of Richmond football team edged Virginia Military Institute, 34-19, thanks to a dominating first-half performance by the Spiders.
The special teams unit for Richmond was a story of the "good" and the "bad."
The "good" came in the first-half, beginning very early in the game. After the defense forced a three and out on the Keydets' opening drive, freshman Rodney Barnes ran over a VMI player to block the punt, and sophomore receiver Ben Edwards picked up the loose ball and ran it back 34 yards for the touchdown and the 7-0 lead.
"All week we had a really good punt return scheme," Edwards said. "That got us off to a great start and we played a great first half."
Edwards celebrating the early score in the end zone was a mild case of deja vu, as he scored an early touchdown last week on a long passing play on the same side of the field.
After a 31-yard field goal pushed the Spider's lead to 10-0, the special teams unit made two more impressive plays. On consecutive punts, the ball bounced off a VMI player and was recovered by Richmond.
The first one, recovered by senior Colin Pehanick, led to another 31-yard field goal by kicker Will Kamin. The second, recovered by sophomore Cole Gonet, led to a Richmond touchdown.
The touchdown came on a 37-yard pass and catch from Aaron Corp to Tre Gray, a play in which Gray dodged multiple would-be tacklers on his way to the end zone, putting the Spiders ahead, 20-0. Gray finished with four receptions for 96 yards and two touchdowns. Most of his yards came after the catch.
The team worked on a few run-after-the-catch drills in practice this week, Gray said.
Gray's second touchdown came on a four-yard catch just before halftime, following a 69-yard catch by redshirt-freshman Stephen Barnette. The play was the longest of the season for Richmond, but big plays haven't been abnormal for the Spider offense this season.
"It makes a big difference when you can make some big plays," interim coach Wayne Lineburg said. "That's something that was missing last year, and that's really helped us so far."
Going into halftime up 27-0, Richmond extended its lead to 34-0 early in the third quarter on a 39-yard touchdown run by junior Kendall Gaskins. That was the last major positive play for the Spiders.
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The "bad" for the Richmond special teams unit began on the ensuing kickoff, as VMI's return man took the kickoff back 74 yards to the Richmond 15-yard line. The defense didn't allow a first down from there, but the Keydets were able to end the hopes of a shutout with a 28-yard field goal.
Up 34-3 still, Richmond elected to take starting quarterback Aaron Corp out of the game at that point in favor of backup John Laub.
Laub was quickly welcomed unkindly to the action early in the fourth quarter, getting sacked and losing ball on a fumble recovered by a Keydet defensive lineman.
VMI turned that into its first touchdown of the game on a 21-yard pass and catch from Eric Kordenbrock to Tracy Hairston, bringing the Spider lead down to 34-10.
After a three and out by the Richmond offense, Kordenbrock produced the Keydets' second touchdown with a 70-yard pass to Mario Thompson.
The now-dwindling lead of 34-17 was enough to convince the Richmond coaching staff to put Corp back into the game at that point, but he was unable to jumpstart the offense, which again went three and out.
The special teams added to the "bad" of its second-half play, allowing 47-yard punt return that, coupled with a horsecollar penalty at the end of the play, gave VMI a first and goal from the Richmond 9-yard line.
After gaining eight yards on the first three plays, VMI was unable to convert for the score on fourth and goal from one yard out.
"We kinda let them back in the game," Lineburg said. "But the defense held in there and made some plays when they needed to."
One possible reason for the drop-off in defensive production between the first and second halves may have been the losses of defensive linemen Corey Jackson, who was lost early in the first quarter, and Kerry Wynn, who suffered his injury midway through the third quarter. Their status going forward is uncertain.
"Those are big losses," linebacker Derek Mayo said. "But it's 'next man up' mentality really. Our defense as a whole has been playing great this season, so we just gotta keep it up."
With the win, Richmond (3-0) remains undefeated on the season heading into conference play next week, and Lineburg keeps his perfect record as a head coach intact.
Game Notes: Richmond linebacker Darius McMillan led the Spiders with 11 tackles, his second consecutive game leading the team... Spider punter Nick Hicks ran out of the back of the end zone to take a safety late in the game... Barnette finished with three catches for 89 yards, a career high.
Contact staff writer David Weissman at firstname.lastname@example.org
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