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High priority for Richmond, Villanova

By Hank Kurz Jr.
Associated Press / November 7, 2009

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RICHMOND - Villanova football coach Andy Talley is in his 25th season with the Wildcats, just won his 200th game, and figures he’s entitled to buck convention.

He’s doing it this week as he prepares to bring the Wildcats (7-1, 4-1 Colonial Athletic Association) to Richmond for a key game against the defending national champion Spiders.

Richmond (8-0, 6-0) has been ranked No. 1 all season, has won 17 straight, and even got a vote in the Associated Press Top 25 (Bowl Subdivision) this week. No. 4 Villanova could take all of that away today.

“You really want the players to understand the ramifications of this game, so it’s something that I try to do without getting too crazy about it,’’ Talley said.

Richmond would clinch at least a share of the conference championship with a victory. A Villanova win would keep the Wildcats in contention with two more league games left. Richmond has one remaining.

“This game is huge,’’ Spiders wide receiver Kevin Grayson said. “Any time you have two big teams going into a game and it’s in the conference, especially our conference, it’s a big game. And being late in the season, it’s definitely probably the biggest game of the year.’’

Beyond the CAA, the game also will affect how the teams are viewed when the Championship Subdivision playoffs seedings are set, and which team winds up having to travel.

Last season, when the Wildcats beat Richmond early in the season, they were sent to play CAA member and defending national champ James Madison in the quarterfinals and lost, 31-27, highlighting for Talley the need to boost his team’s credentials at every opportunity.

“You may never come this way again,’’ he said. “How many chances do you have to control your own destiny? I think that it’s really critical to get young people to understand.’’

The Spiders understand, too, and have extra motivation to win. Last season, they had just climbed to No. 1 for the first time in 23 years when they lost, 26-20, to the Wildcats.

“I would explain it as a fire just burning from last year,’’ Spiders nose tackle Martin Parker said. “Yes, we lost to them as the No. 1 seed, and yes, that fire is still there to come back and play them and prove that we can execute our game and come out with a win.

“Everybody’s more focused into the game plan, watching more film.’’

While quarterback Chris Whitney leads Villanova in rushing, averaging 70 yards per game, it is the versatile Matt Szczur who stands out. Technically a receiver, Szczur runs the ball, catches it, throws it, takes direct snaps in the Wildcat formation, and returns kicks. He averages a CAA-best 134 all-purpose yards.

Richmond ranks third in the nation against the run, allowing just 71 yards per game.

The Spiders, led by senior quarterback Eric Ward and an all-senior offensive line, are more balanced. They average 183 passing yards and 163 rushing yards.