Depleted by injury and down by 17 points, in the same state of North Dakota where last season ended, the Richmond Spiders' season looked to be over. Quarterback Kevin Johnson seemed to have thrown away a redshirt season for just one playoff win, and coach Danny Rocco looked to be hours away from the beginning of his review of coaching offers from other schools.
But the Spiders — playing without their starting quarterback, top two running backs and multiple defensive starters — didn't allow the predictable narrative to play out, instead crawling back from a 24–7 deficit to win 27–24 over No. 7 North Dakota and advance to the FCS quarterfinals for the second straight year.
“I can’t be more proud of this football team," Rocco told reporters after the game. "The toughness they put on display tonight was phenomenal. I can’t say enough about them.”
Richmond fell down 7–0 early, but a 79-yard bomb from quarterback Kevin Johnson to a wide-open Brian Brown brought the score even. North Dakota then controlled the second quarter and most of the third, scoring 17 unanswered points to build the 24–7 lead.
It took most of three quarters, but when the Richmond offense found a rhythm, it couldn't be stopped. Johnson ran for a score from nine yards out to end the third quarter, then the Spiders' defense began matching the offense's energy and control. The defense did not allow any points in the fourth quarter and continually forced North Dakota to punt back to the offense, which eventually found room to run and threw to Brown when it couldn't.
Still, a Richmond comeback seemed highly improbable until redshirt senior Will McCombs squeezed through to block a punt, giving the Spiders the ball at North Dakota's 25-yard line. Richmond would score four plays later to tie the game, and Griffin Trau made an 18-yard walk-off field goal five minutes later to keep the Spiders alive for another week.
When he wasn't under quick pressure from defenders, Johnson was spectacular once again. He used his speed to both run and find room to throw downfield to Brown, who finished with six catches for 171 yards and a touchdown. Receiver Tyler Wilkins also made a contested 54-yard catch to set the Spiders up for their game-winning score.
Richmond's depth is without question its most impressive and important attribute. The team has employed young, inexperienced players to replace injured veterans all season, but whoever has played has seemed to excel. And the variety of weapons on offense — from Brown to Wilkins to running back Deontez Thompson, who carried 20 times for 72 yards — has eased Johnson's transition and helped the Spiders keep winning.
Between now and next weekend, when the Spiders travel across the country to face Eastern Washington, potential distractions will shower the team. Rocco will likely be questioned about his future with the program after saying last week that he would consider other options. Assistant coaches could begin getting called about other jobs too, if Rocco's past assistants are any indication. Oh, and players will have to think about finals, which start Monday.
But the Spiders have proven time and time again this year that the outside noise is nothing but that — outside. Inside, the team continues to find solutions to the seemingly never-ending problems that have arisen.
Next week, Richmond travels nearly 2,600 miles and three timezones to face the No. 2 seed in the nation. An answer to that problem may not exist, but if it does, count on Rocco and his players to find it.
Contact editor-in-chief Charlie Broaddus at email@example.com