(STATS) - With the preseason picks to finish 1-2 in CAA Football losing their star quarterbacks, the door was left wide open for New Hampshire - the No. 3 pick and defending conference champion.
Instead, Richmond has walked through it and risen to the top. To remain firmly in control, the Spiders must exercise some demons against a Wildcats team in desperation mode.
"This is a program that is used to playing in the postseason in New Hampshire, and they certainly have an awful lot on the line," Richmond coach Danny Rocco said. "From my perspective, we feel we have an awful a lot on the line, too, trying to re-establish our program and take that next step."
The Spiders (7-1, 5-0 CAA) made the playoffs last year for the first time since 2009 and are a near-lock to return, reaching No. 5 in the STATS FCS Top 25 with their only loss coming in the opener to FBS foe Maryland. New Hampshire (4-4, 2-3) was a national semifinalist last year, but its run of 11 consecutive playoff appearances is in jeopardy due to losses in all three conference road games.
Having this matchup at home could make all the difference considering the Wildcats are 17-1 at Cowell Stadium since the beginning of the 2013 season. The Spiders haven't won there since 2000.
They've dealt with plenty of heartbreak lately against New Hampshire regardless of the venue, losing the last four matchups with the past three going down to the wire. The Wildcats won 29-26 in Richmond last year on a touchdown with 19 seconds left, scored 10 points in the final three minutes to win 44-40 in 2012, and hung for a 45-43 victory in 2011.
"They're very prideful in the product they put on the field, they play hard and they've experienced an awful lot of success," Rocco said. "This will certainly be a very big challenge for our football team, but a challenge we're excited about."
His team is also excited about controlling its own destiny, alone atop the conference with a one-game lead on William & Mary. James Madison had been tied at the top before losing its last two games following the season-ending foot injury to Vad Lee, who was leading the nation in total offense. The Dukes were voted to finish second in CAA Football behind Villanova, which lost reigning FCS offensive player of the year John Robertson to a torn knee ligament in September.
Richmond was only picked to finish fifth but has exceeded expectations behind a balanced, maturing offense.
First-year starting quarterback Kyle Lauletta has thrown for 1,020 yards over the past three weeks, and his 163.1 passer rating for the season trails only Lee in the CAA. Lauletta has most often targeted wideouts Brian Brown and Reggie Diggs, who have each topped 40 catches while totaling 1,523 yards and eight TDs. The ground attack has come alive behind Jacobi Green, who has rushed for 422 yards and seven TDs over the last two games.
"You sit there and watch a Richmond team these past three or four weeks, they've become the best team in the CAA," New Hampshire coach Sean McDonnell said. "... Kyle throws the ball to people, puts it on 'em, makes great throws with people in his face. They got kids that can go get the ball in Diggs and Brown."
McDonnell's squad hasn't been able to develop the same kind of offensive cohesiveness.
Starting quarterback Sean Goldrich missed three games with a shoulder injury and was somewhat ineffective in his first two games back - losses at William & Mary and Delaware - before having his best performance of the season in last weekend's 20-17 win over Rhode Island. Goldrich was 18 of 32 for 198 yards and two TDs with no interceptions while rushing nine times for 70 yards.
He'll be particularly wary of Spiders safety David Jones, the FCS defensive player of the week after matching a CAA Football record with four interceptions in last week's win over Albany. Jones shares the FCS lead with seven INTs.
However, it's the ground game that most concerns Richmond's defense. Besides Goldrich being a dual threat - he rushed for 87 yards and three TDs at Richmond last year - senior Dalton Crossan has three 100-yard rushing efforts in the last four games.
"They're gonna try to run the ball. We use the term 'bully,' they try to bully teams," Spiders defensive lineman Winston Craig said. "For us, that just gets us excited knowing that you gotta get ready for a long game. That's what we do.
"The thing that our team does really well is respond. Somebody comes and tries to hit us in the mouth, we're gonna respond right back."