The score was the same, but the number next to Richmond on the final box score was reversed.
Richmond opened its 2011 season in Durham, N.C., with a 23-21 upset win over ACC-opponent Duke University. On Saturday, the Spiders fell, 23-21, in Raleigh, N.C., at the hands of North Carolina State, another ACC foe.
Two years ago, Richmond rode that emotional win to an early 3-0 record before collapsing. That team lost its final eight games, all in the CAA conference.
During Saturday's postgame press conference, linebacker Aaron Roane, who played as a true freshman on that Spiders team that beat Duke, said he believed this year's team was much better than that 2011 team. He cited experience as a major difference, but couldn't quite put his finger on why exactly this team was better.
1) Experience - Let's start with the one reason Roane was able to definitively identify, because he's right. The major players on this season's team have seen a significant amount of playing time already in their careers. For reference, redshirt junior receiver Stephen Barnette made his first career reception, a six-yard touchdown, in the Duke game. That was also his only reception that game. He's come a long way since then, signaled by his monster five-catch, 97-yard, one-touchdown performance on Saturday. Barnette is not alone in this regard. Just off the top of my head, I can think of several other players who played in that Duke win, but have matured significantly: Roane, tight end Sam Roller, defensive back Wayne Pettus, defensive tackle Evan Kelly, defensive end Kerry Wynn and just about the entire offensive line, which I'll go into more later.
2) Depth - My colleague harped on this in his season preview, particularly with relation to the Spiders' receiving corps. We saw this firsthand on Saturday when Richmond's top wideout Ben Edwards suffered a head injury during the team's second offensive possession. In 2011, Richmond's top guy was Tre Gray, who had eight receptions for 129 yards against Duke. The rest of the WR group totaled one reception for six yards (Barnette!). When Gray went down with an injury later in the season, Richmond fell apart. The 2013 Richmond Spiders didn't even blink when Edwards went down. Cornell transfer Shane Savage stepped right into his role and played great (seven catches, 54 yards). That depth applies to just about every position this year, with the possible exception of quarterback, where junior Michael Strauss is backed up by a mostly unproven group of freshmen (and Montel White).
3) Coaching - The 2011 team was forced into very unusual circumstances from the coaching standpoint. Eleven days before the season, head coach Latrell Scott resigned after being arrested for DWI. Offensive coordinator Wayne Lineburg stepped in as interim coach and had the full support of his players and staff, but he wasn't equipped to handle the responsibility when the season started going downhill. After the season, Richmond hired Danny Rocco from Liberty to fill the head coaching vacancy. Rocco proved he was up to the challenge, leading the Spiders to an 8-3 record, despite numerous bumps in the road, including a controversial loss to New Hampshire and his starting QB (John Laub) getting injured midseason. Now in his second year, Rocco's team looks poised to make a playoff run, thanks in big part to Rocco's leadership.
4) The offensive line - As someone who watched every play of that 2011 season, I can say without a doubt that this is the biggest difference. Night and day. Aaron Corp, Richmond's starting QB two seasons ago, probably had more natural ability than Strauss, but a passer is nothing without protection. Corp avoided sacks for the most part, but he took a hit nearly every time he dropped back and was often forced to hurry his throws. This eventually led to his injury. Critics might look at the stats from Saturday's game and argue that Strauss was sacked twice and hurried four times, but stats don't tell the whole story. Strauss was getting plenty of time in the pocket, using that time to make multiple reads and find the open man, which he did well as evidenced by his 300-yard performance. When I first talked to Rocco when he came to Richmond, he spent most of the time talking about his intent to improve the offensive line. That was his No. 1 priority. In just two years, he's built arguably the top offensive line in the CAA -- from a pass-protection standpoint, anyway.
5) NC State is better - I don't know if NC State is better than Duke this year - I haven't seen Duke play this year - but I can say with certainty that this year's NC State team is significantly better than the 2011 Duke team. Both team's had bruising running backs that wore on UR's defense as the game wore on (they are in the ACC for a reason) and serviceable quarterback play, but the difference is in defense. As the Duke game wore on, the Blue Devils defense started to give more and more, allowing Corp to get into a rhythm. On Saturday, the Wolfpack defense waited out Strauss's tremendous first half (possibly underestimating Richmond's offense) and just shut it down in the second half. Richmond scored zero points on 56 yards of offense in the final two quarters. The comparison may seem irrelevant, but the point is that, while it's always impressive when a FCS school keeps it close with a FBS school, NC State isn't just some low-level FBS team (which Duke was at the time); it's a team that has a legitimate shot at finishing in the top half of the ACC. And Richmond showed it belonged on that field with them.
At 1-1, Richmond's season is still very much a mystery, as the Spiders prepare for their final two non-conference games against Gardner-Webb and Liberty. Games against ACC opponents accomplish little more than providing a measuring stick for FCS programs, but Richmond appeared to measure up. Of course, the games are played on the field, not paper. And there are still problems NC State exposed against Richmond -- turnovers continue to be a major issue, Strauss hasn't proven he can come through in late-game situations and the punting game is inconsistent. But I believe this team is capable of making the playoffs, and then some. The real season starts in three weeks at home versus Maine. We shall see.
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