The Richmond Spiders will face a live-or-die situation against James Madison this weekend, as the losing team will likely lose all hopes of a playoff spot.
It seems only fitting that the rivalry game between the Spiders and the Dukes has high stakes. Both teams carry an identical 7-3 overall record and a 4-2 conference record into the game, and the winning team will be one win closer to a coveted FCS playoff spot.
These teams are used to being nearly identical in recent years. In 2013, both the Spiders and the Dukes finished disappointing seasons at 6-6. In 2012, Richmond finished with a one-game advantage over James Madison, and the final FCS rankings reflected that Richmond was ranked number 18, while James Madison was at number 19.
Although the stakes for this game are about the same for each team, the circumstances are much different. Richmond is one week removed from a tough upset at Maine, while the Dukes are on a five-game win streak. The Spiders will need to regain their confidence in order to compete with a team that has a dangerous amount of momentum.
The outcome of this game will likely be determined by one main factor: Michael Strauss’ play. The Spiders will have their star quarterback in the lineup for the first time since Oct. 11, when he suffered a fracture in his ankle. Richmond’s success will be heavily determined by Strauss’ ability to come back onto the field and play at a high level, despite more than a month of not playing.
Regardless of whether Strauss plays well, James Madison has proven to be a formidable opponent this season. After losing three of its first five games, the team has been unbeatable. On the same day Strauss suffered his injury, the Dukes beat Towson, who played in last year’s FCS championship game, 62-7. The Dukes have not lost since.
James Madison’s recent success is no accident. This season, the team has earned more yards rushing and passing than its opponents by about 60 yards per game. The Dukes are impressive across the board statistically, but the number that stands out in their matchup with the Spiders is their plus-six turnover margin.
The Spiders’ weakness all season has been turnovers. Last week, the three interceptions by quarterback Michael Rocco in the fourth quarter crushed Richmond’s comeback hopes. The Spiders have forced 15 turnovers, but committed 28, and are particularly egregious with fumbles, having lost 13 this year. The only team with a worse turnover margin in the conference is Rhode Island, and that team has not won a single game.
Don’t expect the Spiders to commit as many turnovers this week as they have recently, because Strauss protects the ball much better than Rocco does. Nevertheless, turnovers will likely be a major factor in determining who wins this game, especially because the teams are so evenly matched.
The big question going into this game is which Richmond defense will show up. At the beginning of the year, the defense was unimpressive, with a gaudy 28 points per game through the first six games.
After Strauss was injured, the defense began playing much better, allowing only 19 points through its next three games. Maine forced Richmond back into its old ways though, as it scored 33 points last week and made the defense seem nonexistent at times. If the Spiders’ defensive performance is similar to how it was a week ago, Strauss’ offense will have to be spectacular to give Richmond a chance to win.
Expect both teams to play with intensity and passion because of the rivalry and the playoff implications. The Spiders should win this game, considering they have their leader back at quarterback and are playing at home, where they’ve gone 4-1 this season. Their only home loss came against New Hampshire, who is now ranked first in the FCS.
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The game will begin 12:30 p.m. Saturday in Robins Stadium.
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