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Sunday, March 07, 2021

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Richmond football advances to second round of playoffs

The Richmond Spiders of early November looked like a mediocre football team. But the Richmond Spiders of the past two weeks have looked like a dangerous and formidable playoff team.

After a convincing 46-24 victory over the Morgan State Bears on Saturday, the Spiders will move on to the second round of the FCS playoffs. Richmond built an early 22-0 lead that the Bears were unable to overcome.

The Spiders’ fast start was characterized by offensive balance and a disruptive defense. Quarterback Michael Strauss, who once again was outstanding, found receiver Reggie Diggs for a 16-yard touchdown fewer than three minutes into the game.

Then, following an interception by safety Justin Grant, the Spiders made a concerted effort to establish their running game. It paid off.

Tailback Seth Fisher scored twice on one-yard runs, which gave Richmond the 22-0 lead at the end of the first quarter and marked Richmond’s eighth first-quarter shutout of the season.

Head coach Danny Rocco attributed the fast starts to a period during practice called team march, which the coaches introduced this year. The period is essentially a scrimmage between the offense and defense that takes place early in practice. The coaches are intense during team march, and it energizes the players for the rest of practice, Rocco said.

“When you get into the game, you never really know what the tempo’s going to feel like or be like,” he said. “There’s been a lot of weeks where we tell our players, ‘This is just like team march.’” Rocco also praised offensive coordinator Brandon Streeter and defensive coordinator Bob Trott, calling their recent game plans “on point.”

Following the lopsided first quarter, the rest of the game was evenly matched. The teams both scored 24 points through the last three quarters, and both finished with about 460 yards of offense.

In fact, for the majority of the second quarter Morgan State was diminishing the lead and outplaying the Spiders. The Bears scored 10 points and the Richmond lead was down to just 12 points, but Strauss found Diggs again on an 11-yard touchdown pass with 20 seconds left in the half. Diggs had 106 yards and two touchdowns at halftime, and the Spiders held a 29-10 lead.

Strauss has progressed in each game since returning from his ankle injury. He threw for 272 yards and four touchdowns against the Bears, and was in complete control of the tempo of the offense. When asked what had changed between Strauss’ first game back and Saturday’s game, Strauss said, “I’m just comfortable.” A comfortable Strauss has given the Spiders a dominant, multi-faceted offense and led to two straight wins in elimination games.

Much of the offensive success in recent weeks can be attributed to the running game, too. Fisher and Jacobi Green have become a dynamic tandem in the backfield, and their different styles keep opposing defenses on their toes. Fisher runs through defenders, and Green runs past them.

Rocco expressed excitement about the running game’s recent effectiveness. “To have that kind of balance and have thunder and lightning out there like we do with Seth and Jacobi I think is very legitimate and very problematic for the defense,” Rocco said.

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Strauss praised his running backs as well. “When you have a balanced attack, it’s a lot easier to play as a quarterback,” he said. “It opens up the pass game and leaves a lot more man coverage. You give our receivers man coverage, it’s hard to stop us.”

The balanced offense has not won games alone, though. The Spider defense has been forcing turnovers the past two weeks, helping the offense by earning extra possessions and favorable field position. Richmond’s defense has forced seven turnovers the past two weeks, compared with 16 throughout the previous 11 games of the season.

Against Morgan State, the Spiders caught three interceptions and recovered a fumble. Grant, freshman Tafon Mainsah and senior Eric Wright each had an interception, each of which came when the Bears were building momentum.

Despite all of the interceptions, senior defensive lineman Evan Kelly was the standout player on defense for the Spiders. Early in the second half, he sacked Morgan State quarterback Moses Skillon, forced a fumble and recovered it. This play set up Richmond’s offense with a short field, which led to a touchdown.

Later in the third quarter, Kelly tipped a pass that was intercepted by Wright, and the Richmond offense turned that turnover into three more points.

Rocco acknowledged the similarity between the teams on the stat sheet, but praised his defense for forcing timely, momentum-shifting turnovers. “I thought our defense was big when it had to be, I really do,” Rocco said.

With this win, the Spiders are now 9-4 this season and will play at Coastal Carolina next Saturday. The Chanticleers are 11-1 and will be a tough test for the surging Spiders. 

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