Richmond poised to stop high-flying EWU
(STATS) - Eastern Washington has powered its way into the quarterfinals of the FCS playoffs behind the division's top passing attack.
Richmond gladly welcomes the challenge of trying to contain superstars Gage Gubrud and Cooper Kupp.
It will be strength against strength when the Eagles have the ball Saturday, as the 12th-ranked Spiders bring one of the best pass defenses in the FCS to third-ranked Eastern Washington.
Much has been made of the Eagles' dynamic passing game, and Central Arkansas thought it had a way to bottle it up in last weekend's second-round matchup. It turns out, that strategy just prolonged the pain, as second-seeded Eastern Washington (11-1) rallied for a 31-14 victory.
The Bears focused on taking away the deep ball and gave the Eagles the underneath, so Gubrud methodically marched his team down the field with short, easy passes. He attempted 64 throws - the most by an EWU quarterback since 2011 - and completed 47 to 11 receivers for 449 yards. He scrambled for 68 yards and scored on the ground for the Eagles, who were also buoyed by a defense that didn't allow a point in the second half, forced two turnovers and permitted a season-low 244 yards.
"Even though we didn't score as many points as we've been averaging, we found a way to win the turnover battle 2-0," coach Beau Baldwin said. "When you take care of the ball in the playoffs and don't turn it over at all, and are able to get a couple, that leads to wins - it flat out does."
Richmond (10-3) is 10th in the FCS in turnover margin (plus-11) and brimming with confidence after rallying from 17 down in the final 16 minutes in last weekend's thrilling 27-24 win at No. 8 North Dakota. Griffin Trau drilled an 18-yard field goal - his FCS-leading 23rd - as time expired to send the Spiders into the quarterfinals for the second consecutive season.
"I can't be more proud of this football team," Richmond coach Danny Rocco said. "The toughness they put on display was phenomenal."
Last Saturday's point total was a season low for the Eagles, who are third in the FCS in scoring at 43.1 per game. They are also second in total offense (541.7 per game) and first in passing yards (412.3) as they get set to match up with a Spiders team which ranks fifth against the pass (160.8).
Richmond has allowed 13 passing touchdowns and opponents are averaging 6.39 yards per attempt.
"I don't know we've faced a defense that's as disciplined and plays as a team as well as they do," Baldwin said.
The Spiders, however, have not seen an offense that airs it out as well as the Eagles.
Gubrud leads the FCS with 4,535 passing yards, is second with 42 touchdowns, third in completion percentage at 68.7 and fifth in yards per pass at 8.98. The sophomore, who also leads the FCS in total offense with 5,066 yards, has the luxury of throwing to one of the most decorated receivers in FCS history.
Kupp's 101 receptions are the second-most in the FCS while his 126.5 receiving yards per game rank first. He owns 15 FCS receiving records, including career receptions (412), receiving yards (6,156) and touchdown catches (70). Last season's STATS FCS Offensive Player of the Year is one of the top three in the voting for the 2016 STATS FCS Walter Payton Award along with Gubrud.
The two were also both named the Big Sky's Offensive Player of the Year - the first time two players from the same school won that award.
Fellow senior receivers Shaq Hill (1,077) and Kendrick Bourne (1,056) have also each topped the 1,000-yard mark and have combined for 21 receiving touchdowns, presenting further matchup problems for the Spiders.
"Their wide receiving corps is probably as talented as any we've seen," Rocco said.
The Spiders have a pretty great receiver of their own in Brian Brown. The first-team All-CAA selection is second in the FCS in receiving yards with 1,441 and averages 18.7 per reception.
Deontez Thompson shoulders the ground game, having set a Richmond freshman-record with 927 rushing yards.
While Gubrud threw the ball 64 times last week, Richmond's Kevin Johnson has attempted 52 passes in his entire career.
The Spiders had been sitting Johnson this season but removed the redshirt after All-CAA second-team selection Kyle Lauletta suffered an ACL tear in the regular-season finale. Johnson has exceeded all expectations as an emergency fill-in, completing 30 of 45 passes for 604 yards with three touchdowns and running in another two scores in the two playoff games.
Lauletta's season-ending injury is one of 18 Richmond has had to overcome this year. The team has also put aside the rumors Rocco is unhappy with the administration and is going to take the Delaware job.
"They've obviously gone through a lot of injuries, but to be where they are now, still, it's a testament to the team that they are," Kupp said.
This will be the first meeting between these programs, and the winner faces either No. 13 Youngstown State or 19th-ranked Wofford in the semifinals.