In its first appearance in an NCAA Division I championship football game, Richmond seized the moment rather than being overwhelmed by it.
The Spiders were almost perfect in the first half of the Football Championship Subdivision final against Montana, a two-time national champion playing in its sixth title game since 1995, and then rode their defense the rest of the way to a 24-7 win Friday night at Finley Stadium.
Staff Photo by Billy Weeks The Richmond team celbrates after winning the FCS Championship Game by beating Montana.
“It wasn’t a perfect game,” said Richmond senior defensive end Lawrence Sidbury, who had four sacks, “but it was a perfect ending.”
Richmond (13-3) was 4-3 after losing to James Madison on Oct. 11, but the Spiders didn’t lose again, closing the season with nine consecutive wins. Montana (14-2), the No. 4 seed, had won 10 in a row and hadn’t been held under 19 points all season, and came into Friday averaging 33.5 points a game.
“Coming in, I usually think we can hold everybody to seven (points),” said Richmond defensive coordinator Russ Huesman, a University of Tennessee at Chattanooga graduate. “Coming into this one, I didn’t know. But after the first quarter, I knew.”
In front of an announced crowd of 17,823, the Spiders held Montana scoreless through the first three quarters. Sidbury paced the Spiders’ defense while Josh Vaughan led the offense, rushing 23 times for 162 yards and a touchdown.
Richmond quarterback Eric Ward wasn’t flashy, but he was solid, managing the offense and going 12-for-18 for 96 yards and a touchdown and rushing for 46 yards. He scored the first touchdown on a pass reception.
“Words can’t describe how I feel about this victory,” said Richmond coach Mike London, only the second black coach to win an FCS title. “These guys truly performed like warriors tonight.”
Richmond showed no title-game jitters on the game’s opening drive, marching 66 yards in 11 plays. The Spiders converted three third downs, including a third-and-15. They scored on third-and-2 at the Montana 23-yard line when Ward pitched right to John Crone, who took four steps and then passed the ball back to his left to a wide-open Ward.
It was Crone’s first career pass and Ward’s first receiving touchdown.
“When he called (the play) I started giggling in the huddle, and I was like ‘Eric, if you drop this pass I’m going to cry,’” Crone said.
Montana appeared headed for a quick response when on its second play from scrimmage quarterback Cole Bergquist hit Marc Mariani down the middle for 47 yards. Mariani, who had seven catches for 172 yards, made a diving catch with his fingertips and tucked the ball under an arm as he went to the turf.
The Griz eventually earned a first-and-goal at the 6, but a penalty moved them back 5 yards, and on third down at the 11, Bergquist was sacked by Sidbury. Kicker Brody McKnight then missed a 31-yard field-goal try wide right.
“That killed us, to not get any points out of that first drive,” Mariani said.
On Richmond’s third possession, Ward hit Kevin Grayson across the middle for 23 yards and Ward ran for 6. On second-and-4 at the 5, Vaughan started to run to his right, encountering a wall of Grizzlies, bounced back to his left and went into the end zone untouched for a 14-0 lead.
The Spiders, led by ends Sidbury and Sherman Logan, continued to put pressure on Bergquist and force him out of the pocket. The Griz gained a first down on their next drive, but it stalled on third-and-8 when Bergquist was sacked by Pierre Turner.
Bergquist was bothered by a thigh contusion and finished 19-for-36 for 267 yards and an interception.
Richmond’s next score came after converting a fourth-and-1 at the Montana 26 when Vaughan broke through an arm tackle and gained 13 yards. Ward hit Garrett Wilkins for a 13-yard touchdown — the first of Wilkins’ career — on the following play to give the Spiders a 21-0 lead with 2:13 to play.
Bergquist fumbled on the second play of the the ensuing drive, and Richmond safety Michael Ireland recovered at the Griz 31. The Spiders drove to the 11 and Andrew Howard missed a 28-yard field-goal attempt as time expired.
The defenses dominated the third quarter as neither offense was able to even get within field-goal range. The Griz finally got on the scoreboard with 11:56 remaining in the game when Chase Reynolds scored on a 4-yard run.
Montana was driving again later when Eric McBride picked off a Bergquist pass and returned it 21 yards to the Griz 21. That led to a 39-yard Brian Radford with 6:54 remaining that pushed the lead to 24-7 and sealed the Spiders’ first championship.
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 ...