There was energy in Robins Stadium on Saturday that the Richmond football team has not seen in years.
I can’t remember the exact result of the play. I think it was an incompletion. I just know that it was a third down play for the Spiders’ defense, it was late in the fourth quarter and ‘Nova’s offense failed to convert.
What I remember more vividly is the reaction of the players and the fans. Defensive lineman Justin Williamson jumped up and down, screamed at the sky, then flexed his muscles at a nearly empty student section. The Richmond sideline was electric—everyone was celebrating. The few fans that were still there were all standing and cheering, and it just felt like the moment the Spiders have been waiting for all year.
On a rainy, windy day in Robins Stadium, the Richmond Spiders defeated the third-ranked Villanova Wildcats 10-9. It was the most significant win for the Spiders since at least the 2012 season. It was, as head coach Danny Rocco put it, a signature win.
Even though the game was low-scoring, it featured some of the most exciting plays of the season from the Spiders. Receiver Rashad Ponder electrified the crowd with a one-handed catch, cornerback Ayo Ogunniyi made an incredible pass breakup late in the game and running back Seth Fisher hurdled over a standing defender.
The win moved the Spiders into second place in the conference, and significantly boosted their chances of winning a conference championship. Villanova was bumped down in the conference from first place to third.
“Certainly we needed it more than they did,” Rocco said. “I don’t think there’s a whole lot of science to that.”
The game was characterized by two high-powered offenses struggling to find rhythm because both defenses played impressively. Rocco called the game “the defense’s day,” and it was just that, as it neutralized Villanova’s star quarterback John Robertson and held the talented Wildcats’ offense to just nine points.
Although the entire defense played well, two unlikely names stood out: Ogunniyi and linebacker Omar Howard. Ogunniyi had two crucial pass breakups, including his game-saving breakup deep downfield late in the fourth quarter and an interception early in the game. Howard made a career- and team-high 18 tackles.
Rocco praised the play of both of his defensive standouts. “Omar has brought a lot of energy to our defense,” he said. Howard did not begin the season as a starter, but Rocco said his hustle in practice forced the coaches to play him.
Ogunniyi did not practice all week because of an injury. “I said, ‘Ayo, just smile,’” Rocco said. “I wanted to see him smile just to let me feel like he could play in the game.”
Ogunniyi’s pass breakup late in the game was perhaps the most important play the Spiders made. He slipped in coverage, allowing the receiver to run open downfield, but was able to recover and stop the receiver from catching the ball. Had Ogunniyi not made that play, the Wildcats likely would have scored and won the game.
The only thing going through Ogunniyi’s head when the ball was in the air was: “Don’t get beat deep. Don’t get beat deep,” he said. The opposing player was able to get both hands on the ball, but Ogunniyi fought hard to knock the ball out, he said.
This win marked the third straight game that the Richmond defense held its opponent to 10 points or less. The defense has been noticeably better since star quarterback Michael Strauss suffered a season-ending ankle injury.
With this win, the Spiders are now 7-2 (4-1 in conference play). The Spiders have three conference games remaining, and if they win all three they will be in good position to make the playoffs. “We just got to keep our nose to the grindstone, finish and remain focused,” Rocco said.
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