It’s a confusing time to be a Richmond football fan.
After a 6-1 start and five straight wins, it was easier. The team looked confident and competent, and anything seemed possible after a 59-49 win at James Madison. Fans were supposed to be satisfied and had no reason to feel otherwise.
Since that win in Harrisonburg, feeling content hasn’t been quite as simple. The Spiders won the next week in their homecoming game against Albany, but head coach Danny Rocco admitted that there was a hangover from the emotional win the week before.
Quarterback Kyle Lauletta threw three interceptions, one more than he had in the first seven games combined. Richmond won by seven points, 38-31, against an Albany team that currently sits at 3-7, ranked 10th in the Colonial Athletic Association.
It was a win though, and Richmond remained atop the conference standings, so fans could stay content and hope their Spiders just had a bad day.
Then it got worse. The Spiders traveled to New Hampshire and struggled mightily. They lost, 25-20, but the team’s lack of energy was more surprising than anything. Lauletta threw four more interceptions, and Richmond simply appeared to have lost its swagger and confidence.
Still, it was the first loss since Maryland in week one. So what? Lauletta had a few bad games, but he’ll tighten up… Right? They’re still ranked first in the conference, no need to panic.
Well, it actually got worse. On Saturday, the Spiders lost by one point on the road at Villanova after missing an extra point late in the game. Lauletta threw one more interception, but aside from that the Spiders played with energy and were on the wrong side of a tough November CAA game after a special-teams breakdown.
That’s when it got confusing. The Spiders went from probable conference champions with a playoff spot secured, to losers of two straight and desperate for a win to accomplish what had seemed so certain just weeks ago. Should fans be disappointed that the Spiders have lost a few games, or satisfied regardless because their team has a shot at the playoffs and a conference championship?
Fans should feel anxious and fortunate, not panicked, not worried and definitely not disappointed.
Next week’s game is a must-win. Richmond has to defeat William and Mary to win the CAA and, most likely, earn a playoff spot. Losing three straight games to end the season would not be appealing to the playoff selection committee—it’s hard to imagine those decision-makers letting that slide.
So, why should fans be anxious? Because there’s no way of knowing which Richmond team will take the field on Saturday.
If it’s the composed, formidable team that began the season, the Spiders will win. If it’s the flat, muddled team that has struggled in three straight games, the Spiders will lose. It is that simple.
It would be lazy and ignorant to point fingers after two losses and feel that the Spiders are spiraling out of control. They are not. No one deserves substantial criticism for the team’s past two losses.
To explain the rather forthright statement I just made, I want to take you back to before this season started.
In August, no one outside of Richmond’s football program could have known what to expect from the Spiders. More than 20 seniors from 2014 were gone, and Lauletta was a mystery. It was unclear whether he could overcome two offensive coordinator changes during the offseason and make Richmond competitive in the CAA. It would have been unfair at that point to expect a conference championship or a playoff berth, simply because of Lauletta’s inexperience and the loss of so much senior talent and leadership.
Flash forward to now. It’s no longer unfair to expect a conference championship or a playoff berth, because it will take one win in the Capital Cup to reach those goals. It is unreasonable, however, to criticize Lauletta’s recent performances, to think Rocco has mishandled his team, or to assume that the Spiders have lost focus or energy.
Lauletta, who played stellar football for six straight weeks, is beginning to go through some growing pains. After learning a complicated spread offense during his first two years, he was given a two-inch binder in February and expected to become an expert in an entirely new offensive scheme just six months before the season. Give the guy a break—he surpassed expectations by a mile for the first half of the season, and I suspect based on the focus and determined mindset he’s displayed throughout his time at Richmond that he will turn his game around on Saturday.
Rocco is not to blame either. He has developed a confidence and expectation to win that transcend the team’s predictable abilities, and the players have responded. The young team has won seven of 10 games, including a beat-down of James Madison that most people outside of that team felt was impossible. Rocco has developed a winning culture that was missing for a few years before he arrived at Richmond. So fans should be appreciative—not disappointed.
Lastly, the Spiders have not lost their focus. They are not lacking motivation. Two road losses to respectable CAA teams are not inexcusable, especially with Lauletta turning the ball over multiple times in those games. Richmond’s defense allowed 25 and 21 points in those two losses, which is on par with the rest of the season, when the Spiders were winning. Receiver Brian Brown is still catching long passes and running back Jacobi Green is still gaining chunks of yards and scoring touchdowns.
The Spiders should be fine. After all, their last two losses came by a combined six points. Lauletta will be the one and only key in Saturday’s game against William and Mary, because his ability to protect the ball has been the lone difference between whether Richmond succeeds or not.
Expect a close game on Saturday. Rocco has a talent for getting his to team to respond when it needs to, but even the Spiders of months past would need a strong game to beat the Tribe. Oh, and Rocco hasn’t lost to William and Mary since he’s been at Richmond. That won’t change this time around.
Contact sports editor Charlie Broaddus at firstname.lastname@example.org