Seasoned Richmond seeking national championship encore

RICHMOND

From last season's national championship to next year's stadium unveiling to long-standing academic standards, the University of Richmond football program has much to offer.

But for all those assets, the most striking element of the 2009 Spiders is their depth chart. Just peruse the 22 projected starters for Saturday's regular-season finale against William and Mary.

Freshmen? Please. They're practice fodder.

Sophomores? Need not apply.

Each of Richmond's first-teamers is an upperclassman, 15 seniors and seven juniors. Moreover, all were redshirted, meaning every starter has been in the program at least four years. Good luck finding a lineup this experienced.

"We've all been around each other for so long, we kind of understand each other and believe in each other," junior linebacker Eric McBride said Wednesday during a media session. "Everyone understands what it takes to win."

Success is all these Spiders have known on their leafy, West End campus. This marks their fifth consecutive winning season, the second-longest streak in program history and bested only by a seven-year stretch from 1916-22.

But winning records are only the beginning. Richmond (9-1, 6-1 Colonial Athletic Association) is assured of a third consecutive NCAA playoff appearance and a chance to defend the national title it secured with a dramatic four-game postseason run in 2008.

"Everyone realizes this is pretty much the time of year you have to kick it into gear," senior quarterback Eric Ward said. "This is the time we start clicking."

Indeed, it's difficult to imagine any challenge Saturday or in the playoffs that would faze these Spiders.

Last season, UR convincingly ended Appalachian State's streak of three consecutive NCAA titles, 33-13, in a playoff quarterfinal. The Spiders overcame a two-touchdown deficit in the fourth quarter to win 21-20 at Northern Iowa in the semifinals, Ward passing to Joe Spencer for the winning touchdown with 14 seconds remaining. This season, they won 16-15 at Delaware when receiver Kevin Grayson blocked a 23-yard field-goal try with 38 seconds remaining. They escaped 21-17 at James Madison when defensive tackle Martin Parker forced, and McBride recovered, a fumble at the 6-yard line with 58 seconds left.

Richmond's defeat was crazier still. After Villanova took a 21-20 lead on a 29-yard, fourth-and-11 pass with 59 seconds remaining, Ward drove the Spiders into field-goal range, only to have Andrew Howard miss from 35 yards.

"They know how to play, they know how to win, they know how to handle adversity," said W&M coach Jimmye Laycock, who expects to start four sophomores and two freshmen Saturday.

The Spiders' talent and experience are a credit to former coach Dave Clawson and his successor, Mike London, a Bethel High and UR graduate. After the Spiders' 2007 semifinal playoff loss to eventual champion Appalachian State, Clawson departed to become Tennessee's offensive coordinator. Richmond immediately tabbed London, then Virginia's defensive coordinator, who further developed Clawson's recruits.

(Talk about odd coincidences: Clawson lasted only one season at Tennessee before head coach Phillip Fulmer was axed. Clawson then landed the big-whistle gig at Bowling Green, replacing the fired Gregg Brandon, now serving as Al Groh's offensive coordinator at Virginia.)

London and Clawson molded a team that's balanced on offense and nasty on defense. The Spiders have won 12 consecutive road games, including two in last season's playoffs, the longest current streak in any division of college football.

"They've seen a lot," London said of his players. "An experienced player that's been in close games has something to draw on."

No Spider is as grizzled as Ward. He's 39-11 as a starter, 15-6 against ranked opponents, and has orchestrated seven winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime.

Ward has obliterated the school's career passing records, and in seven playoff starts is 6-1 with 10 touchdown passes and three interceptions.

"Eric's a better quarterback (than last season)," London said. "I'm around him every day and see the progress. Late in the game, he can do some things because of experience to help you win. Call it bias, whatever you want, I consider him a special young man."

Said Laycock: "I am very, very impressed with Eric Ward. … He finds a way to win, whether it's throwing, whether it's running, whether it's just his leadership."

Like fifth-ranked William and Mary (9-1, 6-1), fourth-ranked Richmond is chasing its first 10-win regular season. Also Saturday, the Spiders will acknowledge their seniors before the last regular-season game in their 81-year-old, off-campus stadium — an 8,700-seat, $25-million facility is set to open on campus in 2010.

"We wanted to take the program to heights it had never been," Ward said of the senior class.

That they have.

David Teel can be reached at 247-4636 or by e-mail at dteel@dailypress.com. For more from Teel, read his blog at dailypress.com/teeltime

Saturday's game

Saturday's game

WHO: W&M (9-1, 6-1 CAA)

at Richmond (9-1, 6-1).

WHEN: Noon. TV: Cox 11.

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