His squad was trending toward another wasted season.
“At 1-3, you could’ve easily lost the football team,” Richmond coach Russ Huesman reflected this week.
The Spiders were on the brink of having their brutal start tailspin into meaningless games over the last two months of their schedule only one year after a 4-7 finish in 2018 — their first losing campaign in seven years.
But Huesman’s bunch used a turnaround with wins against Albany, at Maine, at Delaware and against Stony Brook in Colonial Athletic Association play to create optimism about earning an unlikely berth to the postseason for the first time under Huesman and for the first time at the school in three years.
On Saturday, Richmond visits No. 2 JMU for a 3:30 p.m. kickoff at Bridgeforth Stadium. A win for the Spiders would send them to 6-5 and a chance to get to seven wins during the final week of the regular season against another rival in William & Mary.
“The one thing as a football team you always want to be able to do is control your own destiny at this point in the season,” Richmond senior defensive end Maurice Jackson said. “And I think that’s where we’re at right now and where we wanted to be. Everything is in the palm of our hands right now and we’ve just got to go grab it.”
Huesman said he thinks if Richmond wins out, it deserves to play in the postseason.
“A lot of times I am not politically correct,” Huesman said. “But at 7-5, 6-2, and I think the two things are the 6-2 in the league and then we’ve already beaten three Top 25 teams, two on the road and Albany, who is playing pretty well.”
And the week of the Albany game is when Huesman, Jackson and quarterback Joe Mancuso said the team felt like what had happened throughout the first month was unacceptable.
On Sept. 28, Patriot League member Fordham, now a 3-7 team, beat Richmond 23-16.
“The Fordham game may have woken us up a little bit,” Huesman said. “In that maybe there’s a little more to give in all of us, coaches and players included. And I think we just bowed our neck and just started playing better.”
Mancuso said: “We focused a lot on our leadership and I think our captains took control after those first few games to make the season kind of turnaround. I think our coaches did a good job of focusing on the small, minutiae details on offense, defense and special teams.”
Mancuso upped his play, too.
The quarterback has accounted for 22 total touchdowns compared to seven interceptions and also leads the team in rushing entering Saturday. During the run of four wins in the last six games, he has 17 total touchdowns compared to only four interceptions.
Last year, Mancuso had 10 touchdowns along with 10 interceptions.
“He’s kind of been a stabilizing guy,” Huesman said. “And I felt good about how he’s played.
“Some of it could be experience. He’s been in the system. He’s been through some spring practices with us and has played in some games and I think the other part of it is the emphasis we placed on taking care of the football. Some of the throws that we’re making have probably helped, so there’s a big combination of reasons about why he’s doing a better job. He’s not perfect. Probably nobody in the country is perfect, but he’s done a nice job of leading our offense and taking a little more of a leadership role.”
Grad transfer wide receivers Keyston Fuller and Charlie Fessler are Mancuso’s top two targets, having combined for 1,593 receiving yards.
Meanwhile Jackson, the Preseason Defensive Player of the Year in the CAA, leads Richmond with 13.5 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks. The Spiders are second only to JMU in the conference for sacks with 26 as a team.
“What changed is the mindset and that we still had a lot to play for,” Jackson said of Richmond’s attitude over the last six weeks. “I think after losses like those early it’s easy to say, ‘woe is me’ and get into that type of mindset especially when nothing is going your way, so you’ll just give up.
“But I think it’s a pretty good thing we have at Richmond right now where we’re just focusing on the next game. You’ve got to keep the winning mindset. You got to keep pushing and getting better.”
JMU coach Curt Cignetti said he’s noticed how much better the Spiders have played in league action.
“They put a couple of wins together,” Cignetti said. “And when you win some football games, develop some momentum, gain some confidence and belief, a lot of good things can happen.”
Mancuso said Richmond is capable of completing the task of an unexpected bounce back.
“We wanted to make sure we made a good run in the conference and make the playoffs,” Mancuso said. “Because I think if we’re 7-5, it’s a very good shot you make the playoffs, so the mindset of the next couple of weeks is going 1-0 each week and seeing where that takes us.”