(STATS) – Richmond begins another playoff voyage with history squarely on its side. Momentum is another matter.
The 12th-ranked Spiders return to Robins Stadium for Saturday's first-round matchup with No. 17 North Carolina A&T reeling from two giant blows – an upset loss to their main rival and a season-ending injury to their nearly irreplaceable quarterback.
Two-time All-CAA Football selection Kyle Lauletta won't be leading the Spiders' third straight postseason trip after tearing his right ACL in last week's 34-13 defeat at William & Mary, a result that cost Richmond (8-3) far more than a likely national seed and opening-round bye. With senior backup David Broadus also unavailable for reasons coach Danny Rocco hasn't disclosed, the Spiders will turn to either junior Jake Clise, a former walk-on at LSU, or true freshman Reid Chenault.
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In one sudden spell, the Spiders go from having a player with the third-highest passing yardage in the FCS over the past two seasons to having their season rest on two with a combined five pass attempts – all of which came last week.
“That's kind of the story of the football season,” senior linebacker Omar Howard remarked.
Richmond has indeed dealt with its share of adversity during a season it began ranked fourth in the STATS FCS Top 25 and with national title aspirations coming off a 2015 semifinals appearance. All-America safety David Jones broke his left arm in the sixth game and leading rusher Deontez Thompson began the year third on the depth chart before being elevated due to season-ending injuries to Gordon Collins and Xavier Goodall.
North Carolina A&T (9-2) can certainly relate to the Spiders' unenviable circumstances. Third-string quarterback Oluwafemi Bamiro will make a third consecutive start with Lamar Reynard still sidelined with a chest injury and backup Kylil Carter (knee) out for the season.
“We're more concerned about our situation than Richmond's situation,” coach Rod Broadway said.
Broadway's greatest worry, though, is his team's mindset for a game that may be viewed as a bittersweet consolation prize after the Aggies failed to achieve their No. 1 goal of a third straight MEAC championship and a second consecutive spot in next month's Celebration Bowl. Both were dashed with last week's 42-21 loss at archrival North Carolina Central.
“We're trying everything we can to get these guys back mentally, because it was such a crushing blow for us to go play like we did,” he said.
The Aggies could use respect as a motivating factor in their first FCS playoff game since 2003. The MEAC has lost 18 straight times in the tournament, the last seven each by double digits, and conference members are 0-5 all-time against Richmond.
“It's a great honor to have been chosen to play in the playoffs, and hopefully we can go represent our conference and do a good job this weekend,” Broadway said.
North Carolina A&T hardly qualifies as a pushover. The Aggies boast a road victory over FBS-level Kent State and sport one of the FCS' premier running backs in Tarik Cohen (1,518 yards, 19 total TDs), the MEAC's all-time rushing leader who works behind an experienced offensive line that averages 310 pounds.
“They play a physical brand of football,” Rocco said during Monday's CAA teleconference. “There's a mental toughness that they bring and we've got to recognize that here early in the week. (Cohen) is as good as any back in (our) league, and that says an awful lot.”
In a matchup where controlling the line of scrimmage will be essential, Thompson (761 yards, 10 total TDs) figures to be a central part of the Spiders' game plan as well. The redshirt freshman has ripped off four straight 100-yard efforts while averaging 7.4 yards per carry over that stretch.
Neither team stopped the run well a week ago. Richmond surrendered 219 yards and two touchdowns to William & Mary standout Kendell Anderson and the Aggies were gashed for a season-high 270 yards on the ground by N.C. Central, which had both quarterback Malcolm Bell and running back Dorrel McClain eclipse the century mark and combine for five TDs.
The schools share one common opponent in Norfolk State, which lost 34-0 at Richmond on Sept. 10 and 35-0 at N.C. A&T four weeks later. Those mirror-image outcomes, coupled with the similar strengths and injury issues of both teams, suggest a tightly contested game to determine which advances to next week's second-round clash at North Dakota.
Richmond does believe it holds two key variables that could work to its advantage, however, in playing at home and its vast playoff experience. The Spiders have won 14 straight nonconference games at Robins Stadium since falling to Appalachian State in the 2009 quarterfinals and have won 12 of their last 13 there overall. That run includes postseason victories over MEAC member Morgan State and William & Mary in each of the previous two seasons.
“We still have all the confidence in the world,” Howard said. “There's 100 other teams that aren't playing at this time of year. We've (just) got to play each game like it's our last, because it very well could be.”