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N.C. State-Richmond Preview: Will the FCS Upsets Continue in the C-F?

There is plenty to give Pack fans pause for concern.

Rob Kinnan

As an N.C. State fan, and really as a fan of any team, it is natural to try to justify why your team might win a game it enters as a clear underdog. You have thoughts like: "Sure, they would probably win nine out of 10 times, but if X happens, and Y doesn't happen, and the sun shines up a dog's ass, and Z is abducted by aliens, there's a chance!" Damn you, hope. You blow my beer budget.

Conversely, it is the fan's nature to try to foresee the untenable scenario that could cause your team to blow a game it is supposed to win. And here we are. The Wolfpack host Richmond, an FCS opponent (or I-AA for the traditionalists among us), Saturday at 6 p.m. The Pack have won 25 straight games against FCS opponents. There were a couple of scares against Marshall in the early 90s, but the Pack haven't had an FCS setback since an embarrassing 29-14 loss to East Tennessee State in 1987. The 80s were a long, long time ago and 25 is a pretty healthy streak; why in the world would we doubt for one second that Saturday will be anything but number 26?

For one thing, extremely recent history, as in opening weekend of this season, has seen a proliferation of FBS teams shelling out big bucks to lose at home to FCS opponents. Eastern Washington became just the third FCS team to beat a ranked FBS opponent, squeaking by #25 Oregon State in a shootout, 49-45. I was in Oregon at the time. I will be in North Carolina this weekend. Coincidence? I hope not. But feel free to blame me since it has recently been revealed that I am not a true fan.

Oregon State's debacle was just the tip of the iceberg. There were seven FCS wins over FBS opponents in all, including several blowouts. McNeese State embarrassed South Florida, 53-21, making it highly unlikely that anyone will want to get on the bus with Coach T. Eastern Illinois bludgeoned San Diego State, 40-19, and Towson managed to make N.C. State's win over UConn from last year seem even less impressive by harnessing the Huskies in a 33-18 final.

Back-to-back FCS national champions are > Big 12 champions, apparently. North Dakota State took Manhattan with a 24-21 win over Kansas State. Northern Iowa took out Iowa State, 28-20. And, last and definitely least, Southern Utah squeaked out a one-point win over FBS lightweight South Alabama.

Every FCS team on that list, save So.U, is ranked in the top 20 of its division. So is Richmond. The Spiders are 15th.

If the above does not monger your fear* sufficiently, consider the case of one Danny Rocco, Head Coach, Richmond Spiders. Rocco has completed seven seasons on the sidelines during which time he has never had a losing season and finished first in his conference five times. Liberty was 1-10 the year before his tenure and 6-5 in its first year under Rocco. Richmond went from 3-8 pre-Rocco to 9-3 since he has stalked the sidelines. The former Wake Forest team captain has been an assistant at four ACC programs (Boston College, Maryland, Virginia, and Wake Forest) as well as Colorado, Texas, and Tulsa. It's just a matter of time before he takes over at an FBS school, and whatever program he coaches will always have a chance regardless of its FCS, FBS, BCS, or YOLO affiliation.

Another reason to fear Spiders is that 15 of their players have made 10 or more starts in their careers, and that does not include transfer receiver Shane Savage, who was an all-American at Cornell in 2011. Led by a preseason all-American receiver in Ben Edwards, this is an experienced group. Defensive tackles Evan Kelly and Kerry Wynn are preseason all-conference picks by Phil Steele and have 37 career starts between them. Safety Reggie Barnette, another preseason all-conference selection, leads an opportunistic secondary that picked off three passes in a shutout over VMI last week. The Spiders snagged 24 INTs a year ago en route to a +23 turnover margin. They took ridiculously good care of the ball, giving it up just nine times for the season. The veteran group is unlikely to beat themselves.

There is also the legacy factor. Nick Ritcher, starting Spider left tackle, is the son of N.C. State Hall of Famer Jim Ritcher. Will the Pack pay for not extending the Raleigh native an offer out of high school? This is just the sort of opening #ncstateshit lives for. I predict some DE knee buckling and the rare fat guy offensive touchdown, perhaps on a fumblerooski.

And there is N.C. State's quarterback situation. Brandon Mitchell was electric before getting hurt against Louisiana Tech, but the Pack went from a 50+ point pace to more of a seven points a quarter pace under backup Pete Thomas. I believe Richmond's defense is better than Louisiana Tech's defense. Maybe Thomas, with a full week to prepare as the starter, will be better too, but if the Pack can't get out of the 20s offensively, the Spiders will have a chance to end Dave Doeren's honeymoon in a hurry. And let's not even talk about what the contingency plan is if things go all Maryland and Thomas gets hurt.

But enough naysaying. Breathe a sigh of relief because N.C. State will win for six reasons:

1)      For all of Richmond's experience, QB Michael Strauss is a sophomore making just his sixth start. He is 5-0 as a starter, but he would have been a backup all of last year if not for an injury to the guy ahead of him, and he would be a backup this year if Rocco's nephew, Michael, was not forced to sit out a year by the NCAA after transferring from Virginia. Strauss has not faced a front four like N.C. State's front four, and he has not played in a hostile atmosphere like Carter-Finley at night. He will experience some growing pains.

2)      Reason number two is that Carter-Finley atmosphere. After an alcohol-fueled tailgate session, the place will be AMP (perhaps even HYPE) for the Doeren regime's first non-nooner. The Spiders are not accustomed to 60,000 screaming partisans intent on squashing them like...well...spiders.

3)      Another Pack advantage is offensive pace, and Doeren's system is perfect to pick on an FCS school. No matter their experience, scholarship limits hamper Richmond's ability to build quality depth. Richmond having to chase down waves of fresh receivers and backs for 90 plays will ultimately lead to some big plays for the Pack.

4)      Kelly and Wynn may be the best defensive tackle combo in the CAA, but both are a bit undersized by non Nikita Whitlock standards. Add some no huddle pace to the size disadvantage, and the Pack should be able to wear down the pair as the game unfolds.

5)      Size does matter. The Richmond secondary has had some sticky fingers over the past 12 games (27 INTs), but the group has not seen a set of tall, physical receivers like the Pack boasts in Quintin Payton (6-4) and instant star Marquez Valdes-Scantling (6-3). Jumichael Ramos (6-3) and Charlie Hegedus (6-2) add to the tall targets for Thomas. The Spiders' starting corners go 5-8 and 5-10. Expect Payton, who was surprisingly quiet in the season opener, to have a big game.

6)      Special teams? Special teams?? That has not been a strength in these parts for a long time, but Niklas Sade was splitting uprights left and right in the opener while booming kickoffs to or through the end zone. Wil Baumann even got a few punts further than 40 yards. Spider kicker Brandon Jordi, poached from the soccer team, was 2-for-2 against VMI, but how will he do under pressure for the first time? The freshman kickoff specialist, Peter Yoder, didn't manage one touchback in seven attempts in the opener. The punter will either be a freshman backup QB or a walk-on senior who joined the team like 27 minutes ago. Richmond's kicking game is not one to inspire a lot of confidence. Oh, and Rashard Smith is going to take one to the house.

Final score: N.C. State 34, Richmond 22 (with the last six coming against the second or third defense in garbage time).

* Deepest apologies if you clicked on that link. BTP, SBN, and the whole world do not approve of that message. And what is with the bar scene/leisure wear/wtfness of the whole set? Just all around disturbing. The candles made me think Bill Cowher would be officiating medievil chess again. But that's what you get these days when you type "mongerin fear" in a youtube search on a lark.