CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. – A day after losing their third game of the season, the Richmond Spiders met as a team without coaches.
“We sat down with the team and said, ‘What do you want to do? Do you want to pack it up and go home?'” defensive lineman and team captain Lawrence Sidbury said. “We knew the conference championship was out of reach but we could still make it to the playoffs. Once you reach the playoffs, the sky’s the limit.”
After the 4-3 start, Richmond hasn’t lost a game and will face Montana on Friday night in the Spiders’ first Football Championship Subdivision title game in Chattanooga, a game that’s been dominated in the last three years by Appalachian State.
The Grizzlies (14-1) only tripped once in their path to Chattanooga: a 45-28 loss at Weber State, which they would later avenge in the quarterfinals of the playoffs.
Montana has appeared in five national championship games in the last two decades, winning twice, and was the team to beat this season in the Big Sky Conference.
“We have a good tradition every year and a lot of the teams in our conference mark us down as the red-letter game, so we have to bring it every week,” said linebacker Tyler Corwin. “I think that kind of prepares you for the playoffs. You’re everybody’s rivalry game every week.”
That wasn’t exactly the case for Richmond (12-3), which was starting over under new coach Mike London, who was returning to his alma mater after working as Virginia defensive coordinator. London replaced Dave Clawson, who left to become offensive coordinator at Tennessee.
The Spiders dropped Colonial Athletic Association games to Villanova and James Madison as well as one to Virginia, but London made sure to keep his team’s energy level high.
He said he felt no pressure to return Richmond to a long playoff run a season after they made it to the semifinals only to be defeated by eventual champion Appalachian State. It was his team which set the goal of another playoff.
“What I had to do is I had to put the plan together. We expect Richmond to always be in the hunt. My overall philosophy is if you play hard, if you have passion, if you have energy, then you can accomplish a lot of things,” London said.
Richmond relied on a stingy defense to carry them through the second half of the season. Down 20-7 in the fourth quarter last week in the semifinal at Northern Iowa, the Spiders got some stops on defense and put together a successful two-minute drill to get the 21-20 win and the trip to Chattanooga.
Montana grabbed a 35-27 upset over top-seeded James Madison last weekend with the help of four turnovers and three touchdown passes by Cole Bergquist.
The Grizzlies and the Spiders both rank in the top 10 in the FCS for turnovers gained. Montana ranks sixth with 36 and a turnover margin of 1.2, and Richmond ranks second with 41 and a margin of 1.47.
“Turnovers are always a relevant statistic. They have a direct outcome on games. If you look at when we weren’t playing as well this season … we weren’t controlling the turnover battle,” Montana coach Bobby Hauck said.
Hauck made his only other trip to the title game in 2004 with his alma mater Montana, when the Grizzlies fell to James Madison 31-21.
That team was better on offense, but his current squad is more impressive on defense and special teams while still performing well on offense.
“That team was really explosive offensively, more so than this football team, but this is a much more well-rounded team,” he said.
Montana wants to bring home the third national title they missed in 2004 for a state which, without a professional team or a Football Bowl Subdivision powerhouse, thrives on Grizzlies football.
London, meanwhile, has enjoyed being able to sit back and marvel at what his team has accomplished in his first year. That doesn’t mean he wants to settle for runner-up, though.
“It’s been truly a great opportunity, first-year head coach at your alma mater in the big game,” he said. “You can’t ask for much more than that.
“Yeah, you can. You can ask for a win.”
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