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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Richmond on a roll as EWU looms

EWU players sing the fight song with fans after defeating Central Arkansas on Saturday, Dec 3, 2016, at Roos Field in Cheney, Wash. Eastern Washington won the game 31-14. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

The Richmond Spiders are flying by the seat of their pants this week.

And enjoying every moment.

A late-night flight brought them back home Sunday morning from Grand Forks, N.D., where the Spiders beat Big Sky Conference co-champion North Dakota in a second-round FCS playoff game.

Now it’s on to a quick regroup and an even longer round-trip to play Eastern Washington in Saturday’s quarterfinal at Roos Field – where temperatures were about 30 degrees cooler than in southern Virginia.

One more thing: It’s finals week at Richmond, a private liberal arts school with an enrollment of 4,100. As coach Danny Rocco walked into the football offices to continue game prep for the Eagles, half a dozen players were studying nearby.

“It’s complicated,” Rocco said Monday morning. “We’re practicing at some unusual times, but we have to yield to the (academic) calendar.”

The Spiders are a flexible group, which has served them well during a tupsy-turvy, 10-3 season. It opened with a 17-point win at Virginia, but also included lopsided losses to lackluster teams from Stony Brook and William & Mary. Five other games decided by a touchdown or less.

Last week at North Dakota, the Spiders were down by 17 early in the second half, but according to Rocco “overcame a lot of adversity” and rallied for a 27-24 win.

“For that to happen, you need good leadership and you need good character,” said Rocco, who in 2012 took over a program that went 3-8 the previous year. Now Richmond is in its third straight postseason.

“You will deal with adversity, but we have an element of character that is real,” Rocco said.

More adversity lies ahead. On Thursday afternoon, the Spiders will fly from Virginia to Spokane, where the temperature figures to be 28 that night and about the same at kickoff. The daytime high in Richmond on Monday was 58.

No problem, says Rocco, who noted the approach of a cold front that will bring rain and cold to Richmond by Tuesday night.

“That’s when we’ll be practicing,” Rocco said.

Come Saturday, the Spiders will challenge second-seeded Eastern with a balanced offense that ranks 21st overall and a defense that’s rated ninth best in FCS.

The go-to back is Deontez Thompson, a 6-foot, 200-pound redshirt freshman who has 927 yards and nine touchdowns.

Receiver Brian Brown, a first-team all-Colonial Athletic Association pick, has 1,441 yards on just 77 catches. That translates to 18.7 yards a catch, making Brown one of the best deep threats in the nation.

The Richmond defense includes a pair of all-CAA first-team selections in tackle Winston Craig and linebacker Omar Howard.

The Spiders dealt with more adversity when quarterback Kyle Lauletta (220-for-349, for 3,022 yards, 24 touchdowns) suffered a season-ending ACL tear in the regular-season finale.

In his stead, sophomore Kevin Johnson was 15-for-22 for 289 yards at North Dakota.

While the players cram for finals, the coaches are game-planning. “We’re off to a good start in our prep,” said Rocco, whose team has seen a lot of crossover film of Eastern during their prep for North Dakota.

Even though EWU and North Dakota didn’t play each other, Rocco and his staff were able to “get a good feel for the league.”

Confidence is high, said Rocco, who hopes to draw on the confidence-building experience of last week’s comeback.

“Our kids refused to lose, and they committed to fighting the full 60 minutes that we would find a way to win the game,” Rocco said.