The Collegian
Thursday, February 29, 2024

Second half comeback sends Spiders to second round of FCS Playoffs

<p>Spiders defeat North Carolina&nbsp;Central 49-27 at Robins Stadium on Saturday. Photo courtesy of Richmond Athletics.&nbsp;</p>

Spiders defeat North Carolina Central 49-27 at Robins Stadium on Saturday. Photo courtesy of Richmond Athletics. 

There were times when things looked a little dicey for the Spiders in their 49-27 first- round FCS playoff victory against North Carolina Central University Nov. 25. 

The University of Richmond football team found itself down 20-7 at one point during the first half despite getting on the scoreboard within the first two minutes of gameplay. 

On the first play of the game, in a flea-flicker setup, redshirt sophomore quarterback Kyle Wickersham hit redshirt sophomore wide receiver Ja’Vion Griffin for a 38-yard pass en route to an eventual score from redshirt sophomore wide receiver Nick DeGennaro two plays later. Three quick plays on the first drive of the game put the Spiders up 7-0 in just 70 seconds.

However, NC Central would go on to control the first half, leaving the Spiders’ chances of winning a first-round postseason game for the second year in a row up in the air. 

UR was able to force an NC Central punt on the Eagles’ first offensive possession, which set up an opportunity for the Spiders to extend their lead early. But the Spiders had to punt themselves on their next drive and were ultimately held scoreless until the final moments of the second quarter. 

The Eagles scored with 4:44 left in the first quarter and again with two seconds left in the first quarter. Their second score came on a pass that went for 91 yards, which put NC Central ahead 13-7 going into quarter two.

The Spiders had what looked like a touchdown in their grasp in the first minute of the second quarter when redshirt junior running back Fonnae Webb took a handoff for 56 yards headed toward the end zone. But, unfortunately for the Spiders, a member of the Eagles’ secondary punched the ball from Webb’s grasp, causing a fumble and a possession change in NC Central’s favor. 

It was moments like these throughout the first half that went awry for the Spiders and led to them  falling behind early. 

UR did decrease the deficit in the final seconds of the first half when Wickersham hit DeGennaro for his second score of the game, making it 20-14. But, the Spiders still had a tall task awaiting them as the second half rolled around. 

As the second half arrived, though, the Spiders proved they were up for the challenge. 

The Spiders dominated the third quarter, outscoring the Eagles 14-0 to go ahead 28-20. Redshirt senior running back Savon Smith picked up both scores, rushing for 14 yards into the end zone on the first touchdown and then returning a punt 65 yards for the second. Just like that, there were 29 seconds to go in quarter three, and UR had retaken the lead. 

“I mean, to be honest, we never really had a doubt that we could come back out in the second half and do what we needed to do,” redshirt junior linebacker Wayne Galloway said in a postgame press conference. “I think we just needed to get settled in, because that was a great offense that we played today and I think we just needed to get our feet set.”

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The Eagles punted to start the fourth quarter, and from there, the Spiders extended their lead even further. Finally, things were clicking for UR after a slow first half. 

Wickersham hit junior wide receiver Jerry Garcia Jr. for a 71-yard touchdown, and the Spiders’ lead swelled to 15, 35-20. Wickersham’s ball was nearly intercepted, but once Garcia Jr. came down with the ball, he shook off the defender and made it into the end zone. 

NC Central went on to score a final time, but UR still had two more touchdowns in its arsenal to add to the Spiders’ already convincing second- half comeback. The first touchdown was a 6-yard rush from Garcia Jr. into the endzone, which was his second touchdown of the game. The final score was a 24-yard rush from Smith, his third touchdown of the game. 

Smith’s final touchdown was sparked by an interception by graduate defensive back Aaron Banks, whose end-of-game pick put a fitting cap on UR’s strong defense and outpouring of offense in the second half. The Spiders outscored the Eagles 35-7 in the final two quarters. 

“Got outplayed in the first half a little bit, but these guys, after halftime, came out and played unbelievable, and our guys made plays,” UR Head Coach Russ Huesman said in a postgame press conference

Offensively, Wickersham had himself quite the day, completing 16 of 23 passes for 291 yards and 3 touchdowns. He also rushed for 69 yards, second only to Smith, who had 73. Garcia Jr., Griffin and DeGennaro all had over 80 yards receiving, picking up 107, 85 and 82, respectively. 

On the defensive side, Galloway paced the Spiders with 11 tackles. Redshirt senior defensive lineman Marlem Louis had 3 sacks, redshirt senior defensive lineman Aidan Murray had one sack and two redshirt sophomores, defensive lineman Matei Bingaman-Fitz and linebacker Donovan Hoilette Jr., each had half a sack. 

The Spiders’ perseverance throughout the second- half comeback against the Eagles was representative of their regular season. 

The team started 2-3, and with injuries at the quarterback position and losses starting to stack up early in the schedule, UR’s playoff hopes looked dim. But, the Spiders won six straight games to finish out the regular season, winning a Capital Cup and a piece of the Colonial Athletic Association Championship in their final game against the College of William & Mary Nov. 18. 

“These dudes just come to work every day,” Huesman said. “I don’t think any of ‘em really thought we were out of it. I never thought we were out of it. I thought we could win and win out and go and I think these guys believed it too. And great group to work with, fun group to work with.” 

Now, the 9-3 Spiders will take their seven straight wins to Albany, New York, where they will take on the University at Albany at 12 p.m. Dec. 2 in the second round of the FCS Playoffs.  

Contact sports editor Jimmy James at jimmy.james@richmond.edu. 

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