It is never a good feeling to have a must-win in your third game of the season, but that was exactly where the Villanova Wildcats found themselves after tough road losses at Boston College and Fordham. The 'Cats played close games against both opponents, but turnovers and mistakes killed their chances. Today, they had Stony Brook awaiting, the school that knocked them out of the playoffs at the end of last season.
Now, however, it was a conference game, and the 'Cats were ready for SBU. The score was 21-0 at halftime and Nova managed to pitch a shutout through the third quarter, with the Seawolves being held scoreless until there was just 5:45 left in the fourth quarter, when SBU quarterback Lyle Negron was finally able to find an open receiver, Malcolm Eugene, on a low-thrown ball in the endzone.
The ensuing extra point, however, was blocked by Villanova's Rakim Cox, who seemed to be well recovered from the concussion injury that saw him pulled against Fordham. That was the end of scoring for Stony Brook, allowing the Wildcats to take home a 35-6 victory and go to 1-0 in the CAA conference.
"They really showed a lot of signs of the overtime game they played at Buffalo," Villanova head coach Andy Talley posited. "I think they had about 100 plays and I think they came in without their legs in the first half.
"I think that hurt them a little bit. We, on the other hand had the week off, we tried to lick our wounds and figure out how we could execute better. One of the things we wanted to do, we know we could do it, and hoped we could, was to run the quarterback a little more, because he felt that he was more comfortable in a game that he gets a chance to run more.
"We've been trying to hold him back a bit to save him from getting beat up too much."
SBU was without star running back Marcus Coker today, after it was announced that he would be out for the remainder of the season. Coker transferred to Stony Brook last season after being the second leading rusher in the Big Ten at Iowa the season prior. The star rusher gained over 100 yards on the ground against Villanova in last season's playoff matchup.
John Robertson led the Villanova offense with 140 yards passing and 115 yards on the ground, as well as two touchdowns. The first score, however, was put up by Villanova's third-string quarterback Cody Pittman on a trick play (or "special" as Talley calls them) pass to Gary Underwood. The second score of the game also came on a trick play, with Robertson handing the ball off and receiving it again after two laterals to throw it downfield to Clay Horne for a 47 yard score.
"We had a couple of easy touchdowns, I think the trick play is always good when it works, and it did.
"We ran a special play the week before and it looked terrible, and our offensive coordinator Sam Venuto, he gets itchy about stuff like that, so I pounded him: 'put a couple specials in, put a couple specials in.' You know, I'm thinking, 'he's not going to do it,' but he did. He listened and put a couple in, you know, probably for me just to keep me off his back, and he had enough guts to call it — because I didn't call it.
"I like to stay wide open like that. I like to run a special every week, because it's feast or famine. Why not, it's one play."
The one mistake Villanova made — if you could call it that — was taking a chance on a 51-yard field goal with back-up placekicker Chris Gough with 9:48 left in the third quarter. The attempt ended up more than a little-wide right, but the 'Cats thought the chance was worth it on fourth down.
Villanova was up 28-0 at the time, however, and the 'Cats were willing to take the risk giving SBU the ball back on the 36 yard line.
The biggest difference from the first two games though? No turnovers.
The 'Cats kept the ball under control on offense, and according to Robertson, the 'Cats spent much of their off-week preparation running ball-control drills.
"With the bye week, I think that really helped us," he said. "We focused on holding on to the ball; we did 'don't get stripped' ball control drills. That was a big emphasis, don't turn the ball over, and we can't really the rest of the season."
"[A]s a quarterback, it is your team and if you win is on you. The last two games I didn't play as well as I can, and that's why we lost."
Interceptions were cut down to zero as well, but the WIldcats didn't take too many chances in the air. Robertson threw just 12 times, completing nine. The Wildcats produced most of their 410 yards of offense on the ground, running 42 times (76.4% of offensive plays). Robertson carried the ball himself on 20 of those runs. Jamal Abdur-Rahman was the second-best runner on the field, picking up 65 yards on 11 carries, while Austin Medley picked up 60 on just three tries, including one 57 yard breakaway.
"If you look at how we won last year — you know, we threw the ball 12 times," Talley said of the offense. "So, probably we're going to throw it 15 to 18 times with John [Robertson], but when you ask him to throw more than that he's under duress. He's really not that type of quarterback, he's more of a runner, option guy, and he can throw the ball but we're not great coming from behind so we need to have a running game to keep him in a comfort zone."
"I think just maybe going into the season they didn't want me running as much, but as a player I like going out there and kind of running it hard and then being able to drop back and pass - its just a good rhythm," Robertson added.
Defensively, the Wildcats switched things up, going to a 4-3 base defense, using some defensive line depth to put more pressure up-front, allowing the big defensive ends like Rakim Cox more freedom to make plays, while requiring the secondary to do a better job sticking with their assignments. They coaxed three fumbles (one returned for a touchdown) out of the Stony Brook offense, and picked off Negron once.
"I don't like to bring up the past, but we're down in turnovers and we like to pick up a turnover for every time out offense turns it over," end Rakim Cox said of the defensive effort.
Villanova used the 4-3 look to help stop the run, and that strategy was also employed at Boston College for at least part of the game. Talley made it clear that they were willing and able to put four guys' hands down on the turf to get an advantage against power running teams this season.
"We've been running a lot of cover-2, but I think the biggest difference for us is that the past two weeks we've had people trying to do other people's jobs, this week we got everyone on the same page and we were successful," senior safety Joe Sarnese added.
"We're always taught to strip at the ball every play, you never know, and when it comes out no one near the ball - we call that a 'country ball' - you scoop that up. Then all of my teammates are going to block for me, I have of confidence in that."
The switch wasn't a big surprise to Stony Brook's Chuck Priore, who noted, "they did it to us last year too."
They gave up just 87 yards on the ground to Stony Brook, but Lyle Negron managed to pass for 279 yards and a touchdown. Of those, 184 of those yards were on receptions by SBU's top target, Malcolm Eugene.
"I think our defense tackled well, except on their tremendous receiver, Malcolm Eugene, I mean, we couldn't tackle him, he was really exceptional," Talley stated.
The Wildcats played clean and crisp in their home opener, looking much more like the team that everyone expected them to field this season. The Wildcats opened the season looking like a team full of freshmen rather than one that returned almost all of the starters from
"I wanted to beat somebody that was pretty good, and I really think they were pretty good," Talley said of his take-awy from the game. "The spread was three points, you know, it was a toss-up game, so what I take from it is, now this is the way that you can play. You need to be reaching for that plateau because [Towson, New Hampshire and William & Mary], we're going to have to play that well, and here comes the Ivy League champion, Penn won that six-seven years and they're always tough against us."
We finally played Villanova football! Our staff did a great job! Team win for sure. Happy parents weekend.— Andy Talley (@Coach_Talley) September 22, 2013
Villanova reported a crowd of 11,617 for the game, which was Andy Talley's 199th victory on the Main Line. The coach will go for win number 200 next week against Penn.