Not long after James Madison’s Scotty McGee returned a punt 69 yards for a touchdown with one second left to give the top-ranked Dukes a 38-31 win over Richmond, the Spiders saw what they had to do.
Following that heartbreaking loss on Oct. 11, Richmond’s record was 4-3, 2-2 in the Colonial Athletic Association. To make the playoffs and to have a shot at making it to Chattanooga for Friday night’s FCS national championship game, the Spiders knew they couldn’t afford another loss.
“From that point on, we just decided to treat every game like a playoff game,” running back Josh Vaughan said. “Our backs were against the wall, and we said after the JMU game, we have to win out.”
Richmond quarterback Eric Ward celebrates after his team's 21-20 victory over Northern Iowa in an NCAA Division I semifinal round football playoff game, Saturday, Dec. 13, 2008, in Cedar Falls, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
And that’s just what No. 7 Richmond (12-3) did.
The following week the Spiders won at No. 10 Massachusetts, 30-15. Then came relatively easy wins over Georgetown, Hofstra and Delaware. After that came the regular-season finale at No. 16 William & Mary, which also was fighting for a spot in the playoffs.
Richmond led its rivals 20-0 at halftime, but the Tribe stormed back and tied the game at 20 with 18 seconds left to force overtime. Defensive end Sherman Logan blocked William & Mary’s field-goal attempt on the opening possession and Richmond was able to kick a field goal to win and secure a spot in the playoffs.
“Before they tried that field goal, we got together and were like ‘This is for the playoffs, right here. If you guys want to go on and eventually get that national championship, we need a big stop right here,’” wide receiver Kevin Grayson said.
Richmond hosted No. 21 Eastern Kentucky in the first round and claimed a 38-10 win. After that, the Spiders headed to Boone, N.C., to face No. 2 Appalachian State, the three-time defending national champions, who beat them by 20 in the semifinals a year ago.
Richmond trailed 7-6 at halftime but dominated the second half, intercepting five Armanti Edwards passes and pulling away for a 33-13 win.
The Spiders were jubilant about returning to the semis, but to reach the title game they were going to have to pull themselves back from the brink one more time.
Trailing No. 4 Northern Iowa 20-14 last Saturday, Vaughan was stopped on fourth-and-1 at the UNI 43-yard line with 2:13 remaining. That looked like the end of the Spiders’ run, but the defense forced a three-and-out on the ensuing possession and what followed were perhaps the finest 116 seconds in the program’s history.
First, Derek Hatcher returned UNI’s punt 26 yards to the Richmond 38. Then quarterback Eric Ward calmly moved the battle-tested Spiders down the field. On fourth-and-2 at the UNI 26, he hit fullback Shawn White for 4 yards to keep the season alive. And two plays later he connected with tight end Joe Stewart for a 13-yard touchdown with 14 seconds left to send the Spiders to a 21-20 win and their first national championship game.
“We felt like we’d been there before, we didn’t get flustered at all and Eric’s composure in the huddle — he looked at us and said ‘We’re going to win this game,’” Stewart said.
The Spiders did, their eighth consecutive win since that loss to James Madison.
“Everyone knew in the back of their minds that we have a great team and we have the ability to be a national champion,” linebacker Patrick Weldon said. “We had a team meeting (after the James Madison loss), and we just made sure we took it one day at a time, one game at a time. But everyone on our team was confident. Everyone knew we had the ability to do it.”
John Frierson is in his seventh year at the Times Free Press and seventh year covering University of Tennessee at Chattanooga athletics. The bulk of his time is spent covering Mocs football, but he also writes about women’s basketball and the big-picture issues and news involving the athletic department. A native of Athens, Ga., John grew up a few hundred yards from the University of Georgia campus. Instead of becoming a Bulldog he attended Ole ...