WILLIAMSBURG — Richmond leads the Colonial Athletic Association in passing yards and attempts by a country mile and happily flings it all over the ballyard like Aaron Rodgers on a Paxil drip. So of course, Job One for William and Mary's defense: Stop the run.
It matters not that the Spiders' rushing game appears to be little more than a change-of-pace and their yards-per-carry matches the Congressional approval rating.
"They'll have a good run plan," Tribe defensive backs coach Tom Clark said. "That's the first thing we're going to have to do is not let that get on track, because if the run game gets on track, you get behind the count. They've got such a good passing game that if we're in a situation where we're not sure if it's going to be run or pass, it makes it that much more difficult to deal with."
William and Mary (7-4, 4-3 CAA) retains playoff aspirations, heading into Saturday's 4 p.m. finale at Robins Stadium. Meanwhile, the Spiders (5-6, 3-4 CAA) play the role of spoiler and aim to finish on a high note following a dispiriting start.
"We've always been saying the past three weeks, it's been like a playoff game," W&M defensive tackle George Beerhalter said. "We've just got to keep on winning and the rest will take care of itself. We can't do anything but do our job by winning this week. We hear stuff — we win, we're in — but we have to win, regardless. We want to win, regardless; that's our rival."
Richmond has won its past three as the passing game found another gear. Quarterback Michael Strauss has thrown for 3,575 yards and 25 touchdowns, while completing nearly 66 percent of his passes.
The Virginia transfer had a career day in last week's 46-43 shootout win versus Delaware, completing 35 of 46 passes for 543 yards and five touchdowns. In the past four games, he averaged 371 yards passing and completed 72 percent of his throws.
"They throw and they catch very well," Tribe head coach Jimmye Laycock said. "It seems very simple to say throw and catch, but you've got to put it in the right spot and when you put it in the right spot, you've got to catch it and they're doing a great job."
Strauss and the Spiders' passing game flourished out of necessity. Injuries and personnel combined to limit the rushing game to 109.9 yards per game and 3.6 yards per carry.
UR coach Danny Rocco has said all season that the offensive imbalance and reliance on the pass are out of his comfort zone. But Strauss' increased efficiency in the past month makes him feel a bit better about so much pitch-and-catch.
"He's a slippery dude," Beerhalter said of Strauss. "He's hard to get down. He's a big guy. We have to be disciplined and stay in our rush lanes."
The Spiders' passing attack took a hit with the loss of Ben Edwards. The leading receiver and all-conference wideout, a senior from York High, tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his knee versus Delaware and isn't available. However, UR has five other players with at least 23 receptions.
Though the Tribe defense will focus more on pass rush and coverage this week, the coaches still stress stopping the run. W&M allows just 114.8 yards rushing per game and 3.2 yards per carry, despite giving up 248 yards in last week's 15-9 loss to Towson and its relentless ground game.
"I know the balance that they strive for and I know that they'll look for run game edges," said Clark, who coached with Rocco and offensive coordinator Brandon Streeter at Liberty. "We have to be able to stop the run first, get them into those passing situations and then execute."
William and Mary leads the CAA in pass defense (183.3 ypg) and total defense (298.1 ypg) and is second behind league champ Maine in pass defense efficiency. The Tribe might be better equipped than most to deal with UR's passing game, given its personnel and the fact that its base defense is a five-defensive back, or "nickel" package.
"It still comes down to you've got to put people in the right places, break on the ball and rush the passer," Laycock said. "Or, you've still got to play run, too. They'll pop runs if you're not paying attention to it. You've still got to be fundamental."
Fairbank can be reached by phone at 757-247-4637Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun