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Richmond advances to face Montana for title

CEDAR FALLS, Iowa -- Eric Ward and the Richmond Spiders never doubted, never wavered.

Down 20-7 going into the fourth quarter? Well, get some stops on defense and start moving on offense.

Which is just what they did.

Eric Ward threw a 13-yard touchdown pass to Joe Stewart with 14 seconds left and Andrew Howard kicked the extra point, giving Richmond a 21-20 victory over Northern Iowa on Saturday and sending the Spiders to the Football Championship Subdivision title game.

"I knew we weren't out of the game," Ward said. "We were going to have opportunities to get the ball back. We've got a great defense. I was confident they'd get the stops we needed."

Richmond (12-3) reached the final for the first time and will play Montana in Chattanooga, Tenn., on Friday night. The 12 victories are a school record for the Spiders, who lost to Appalachian State 55-35 in last year's national semifinals.

The unseeded Spiders beat second-seeded Appalachian State in the quarterfinals before knocking off third-seeded Northern Iowa (12-3), which was seeking its second trip to the championship game in four years.

"A lot of people said you guys don't belong here," first-year Richmond coach Mike London said. "I think we belong. In the first three rounds we played conference champions. This is a significant accomplishment for these players."

Richmond started the winning drive at its own 38 with 1:44 remaining and no timeouts left. Ward completed six passes in the march, including a 4-yarder to Shawn White on fourth-and-2 at the UNI 26 -- White's only catch of the game.

Two plays later, Ward hit Stewart in the end zone.

"We've probably run that play 20 times this week," Ward said. "That's the first time I looked at him."

Ward also threw a 40-yard touchdown pass to Kevin Grayson and scored on a 1-yard sneak that drew the Spiders to 20-14 with 11:16 left. He finished 28-of-35 for a career-high 280 yards and no interceptions.

"Eric is a young man who's very poised," London said. "You can yell at Eric and he doesn't get disheveled. You can praise him and he won't get too high. He's a level-headed young man who makes the throws and makes the plays when you need them."

Pat Grace's two third-quarter touchdown passes helped the Panthers build their 20-7 lead, but after stopping the Spiders on fourth-and-1 with 2:13 to play, they couldn't come up with another big stop in the final drive.

"This one hurts," UNI coach Mark Farley said, "because we had it."

Grace was 19-of-28 for 224 yards, including touchdown passes of 4 yards to Ryan Mahaffey and 10 yards to Jarred Herring. But Grace overthrew Herring and Schuylar Oordt on what would have been sure touchdowns and dropped a throwback pass when he had four blockers and an open field in front of him.

The Panthers stalled four times on good drives and had to settle for Billy Hallgren's field-goal attempts. Hallgren connected from 35 and 25 yards, but missed from 42 and 51 yards.

Late in the game, when Northern Iowa had a chance to run out the clock, Farley went conservative on third-and-8 at his own 44. Grace ran for 2 yards, the Panthers punted and Derek Hatcher returned it 26 yards, giving the Spiders decent field position for their winning drive.

"What I was trying to do was win the game like we won all season," Farley said. "I wanted to put it on the defense. I thought we were good all day except the last two drives. I thought they'd make a play, intercept or fumble or whatever."

But his defense couldn't do it and Richmond is going where it has never gone before in football.



2015 Colonial Athletic Association Standings

James Madison6-29-3
William & Mary6-29-4
New Hampshire5-37-5
Stony Brook3-55-5
Rhode Island1-71-10

2015 Missouri Valley Football Conference Standings

North Dakota State7-113-2
Illinois State7-110-2
Northern Iowa5-39-4
South Dakota State5-38-4
Western Illinois5-37-6
Indiana State3-55-6
South Dakota3-55-6
Youngstown State3-55-6
Southern Illinois2-63-8
Missouri State0-81-10