Three weeks ago, Richmond quarterback Kevin Johnson was in the home stretch of his redshirt sophomore year.
Now he’s the biggest obstacle to Eastern Washington reaching the semifinals of the FCS playoffs.
The Eagles and Spiders will square off Saturday in a quarterfinal game at Roos Field.
When Richmond starting quarterback Kyle Lauletta went down with an ACL injury in the final game of the regular season and the backups proved ineffective, Johnson offered to take one for the team.
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This was no small sacrifice. Johnson is giving up an entire year of eligibility to play a handful of games.
His motivation was simple, he told the Richmond Times-Dispatch: “Playing for the seniors, getting an opportunity to play in the playoffs and win and advance.
“I just thought that was the best thing for me to do for the team,” said Johnson, whose mobility and strong arm made an immediate impact in the playoffs.
In the first round against North Carolina A&T, the former scout QB completed 15 of 23 passes for 315 yards and a touchdown. He ran for 22 more yards in the Spiders’ 39-10 win.
“Our players rallied around Kevin Johnson,” Richmond coach Danny Rocco said. “And Kevin just stepped up in a big way.”
Johnson passed a bigger test last weekend, helping to rally Richmond to a 27-24 win at Big Sky Conference co-champion North Dakota. In that game, he completed 15 of 22 passes for 289 yards and two scores.
“He has a really strong arm and he’s able to run around — obviously that’s going to cause some problems,” said Eastern Washington roverback J.J. Njoku.
Another wrinkle is the fact that the Spiders like to go deep. “They’re not afraid to take shots, and they do it more than anyone we’ve faced this year,” EWU coach Beau Baldwin said.
“They’ll throw it 50, 60 yards downfield, and those guys make those plays. … Now we’ve got to be great and eliminate those plays.”
The biggest deep threat is Brian Brown, who has 1,441 yards on 77 catches — an average of 18.7 yards.
Eastern Washington’s offensive staff has learned to expect the unexpected.
Last weekend, the Eagles expected some tight coverage from Central Arkansas; instead they faced three down linemen and eight players dropping into coverage.
“They sure didn’t drop eight on film, but they did against us,” said Baldwin, whose team got off to a slow start before rallying for a 31-14 win.
Central Arkansas isn’t the first team to change its defensive looks against Eastern Washington’s passing game.
“People look at us and they feel like they don’t want to put their kids in those kinds of situations,” Baldwin said. “Most teams are trying to make us earn it.”
The key is quick recognition. “We’ve gotten pretty good to adjusting pretty quickly,” Baldwin said.
A key to successful adjustments has been the maturation of EWU’s young offensive line, Baldwin added. “They’ve continued to grow as a group,” he said.
Despite trailing at halftime in six of their 12 games, the Eagles are 11-1 thanks to their dominance in the third quarter.
Eastern Washington is outscoring opponents, 174-62, in the third quarter, a trend that began in the season opener at Washington State and continued against Central Arkansas.
The Eagles are almost as good in the fourth quarter, holding a 134-50 advantage.
Coming from behind is working out so far, but Njoku doesn’t want to push it.
“The biggest thing is for us to attack and start fast,” Njoku said. “The margin of error is we can’t start slow and magically pick it up.”
Richmond is 10-3 despite losing 18 players to injury — Lauletta was the most prominent.
“That’s a resilient outfit,” Baldwin said. “When you read between the lines about what they’ve gone through, including redshirting a quarterback this late. It says a lot about their character.”
Other key Richmond players who are injured include tailback Gordon Collins, who had been expected to take over for 2015 All-American Jacobi Green but tore his ACL in the first game of 2016, and All-American safety David Jones, who is currently ranked the No. 4 free safety in all of college football by NFL Draft Tracker. Jones shattered his forearm midway through the season.
“I feel like we’ve overcome a lot of adversity and with that, we’ve become very united,” Rocco said. “When you survive together, you can’t help but continue to unite.”