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Villanova vs. Rhode Island recap: Wildcats take advantage of weak Rhody defense

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Villanova scored 37 points in the first half and rested the starters the rest of the way in a 44-21 home victory.

Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

When Rhode Island won the coin toss and deferred to the second half, they might as well have spotted the Wildcats seven points. With the ball on their own 20 to start the game, the 'Cats handed off to freshman running back Matt Gudzak who cut through the defense for 19 yards. A play later, Poppy Livers took a reverse hand-off another 43 yards to put the 'Cats deep into URI territory and two plays later, quarterback John Robertson passed to Mike Burke for the first of his four passing touchdowns.

The Wildcats offense would go on to score 37 points in the first half, while the defense allowed none on the way to a relatively easy 44-21 win for the 'Cats. They moved to 5-0 against FCS opponents, 5-1 overall, and 3-0 in the CAA conference. They have outscored FCS opponents 225-77.

"We knew that we would come into this game favored and we wanted to play well, and I think we did for a half," head coach Andy Talley said. "The second half, we just we were just treading water with a lot of young players in the game.

"I'm always happy when we win, but its not the game we want. I'll take it, I don't think the score is indicative of what kind of team we are."

A Chris Gough kickoff started the Rams off on their own 3-yard line, for a series that went nowhere in three downs. When they lined up for the punt, however, a bad snap launched the ball through the endzone to spot the Wildcats another two points and the ball.

Nova didn't waste time, running a six-play, 73-yard drive after the safety kick-off to score again on Robertson's second touchdown pass, a 44-yard toss to Poppy Livers. The Wildcats then went eight-and-a-half minutes without scoring, but re-opened their account aith 13:08 left in the first half, when Kevin Monangai took a handoff 31 yards to make it 23-zip in favor of the Wildcats.

Robertson threw two more touchdowns on the Wildcats' last two possessions of the first half. The third was a 16-yard pass to Gary Underwood, and the fourth was a 14-yard toss to Poppy Livers to convert a fumble recovery by Villanova defensive end Reggie Paris.

"John is the eraser, that's what he is," the coach exclaimed. "He erases the mistake that someone else made and gets you back to a first down.

"You can't reproduce that guy. He's one of the best there is at any level, he's a nightmare if you're a defensive coordinator because you can defend somebody beautifully in the passing game and he just pulls it down and runs with it, you fill the box up and he throws it outside.

"I didn't think he had a good game, he wasn't crisp in the first half even though he threw four touchdown passes. He was just not really as good as he's been all year, even though his stats speak well -- and that's a good thing that maybe in this game he tailed just a bit and now we'll get back up on the high-horse."

That fourth passing touchdown was good to end Robertson's efforts for the afternoon. Up 37-0 at the half, Andy Talley opted to let back-up quarterback Chris Polony start the second half.

"We got him out of the game in the second half, I was just committed to 'we've got 35 points and Chris Polony has got to come in and play,'" explained Talley.

"I just think our receivers are getting open for me and our offensive line is really good at pass-protection this year," Robertson said. "I give credit to the receivers and our line, because if you watch, they're really making the plays for me, I'm just throwing it up sometimes and they're one-on-one against guys going up and grabbing it.

"I feel a lot of confidence in them, in each receiver, when I have four or five guys out there - every one I can look to to make a play for me."

Polony's offense didn't score in the third quarter, stalling out on two drives, but third time was the charm. The Wildcats got the ball back with 1:37 left in the third quarter, and with 2nd-and-10 to start the fourth quarter, Polony connected on a long pass to Clay Horne to reach the URI redzone, before carrying it himself for seven yards and the score.

Talley put in third-string quarterback Cody Pittman afterward.

Rhode Island, for their credit, ended the shut-out in the fourth-quarter against the Villanova back-ups.

Jordan Sebastian ran in the short-yardage touchdown for the Rams after a 5-play, 20 yard drive, taking advantage of a big punt return and penalty. On their next possession, the Rams scored again on a 58 yard touchdown pass from URI back-up quarterback James Caparell (who came on after an injury to starter Mack Lowrie) to Robbie Jackson. After the kick-off, the Rams sacked Pittman to cause a fumble giving them the ball back in the redzone -- and Caparell again scored quickly, on a 23-yard pass to Robbie Jackson.

That kept the score well under the Wildcats' projected margin of victory of 41-points according to the Sagarin ratings, and it forced Talley to bring Chris Polony back into the game to try and stop the Rhode Island momentum. That ended the bleeding, and a timely Cameron McCurry fumble recovery allowed the 'Cats to drive and, ultimately take a knee to end the game.

"Its one of those games where it really was a one-half game," Talley stated. "The second half was just so sloppy, we tried to play a lot of players. You know, it's just a game that kind of went downhill, really."

Robertson was 13-for-16 passing for 189 yards and reached four passing touchdowns in this fourth-consecutive game. He also ran for a team-leading 61 yards in the contest. Poppy Livers was the recipient of the passing largesse this afternoon with 7 receptions for 113 yards and 2 touchdowns to go along with his long rushing play.

"He's the little engine that could, he's always a great responder in difficult segments during the game," Talley said of Livers. "He's become really that go-to receiver, which has surprised me because he was always part of the package."

Villanova's rushed for 198 yards to Rhode Island's 50 yards, but URI beat them in the passing game, gaining 286 yards to the 'Cats' 275. Key, however, was the Wildcats' 4-for-4 on redzone chances, to Rhody's 1-for-3.

"Whenever we get down to the one-yard-line like that, we get our backs to the wall, we don't want anyone getting in our endzone," linebacker Dillon Lucas said. He ended the game with 9 tackles, a sack and one forced-fumble.

The Wildcats gave up some disappointing penalty yardage and committed some sloppy mistakes in the second half -- particularly in the 4th Quarter.

"I've seen games like this go downhill, where you pull out and go ahead and then things get sloppy," the coach stated. "I was really unhappy with the personal foul penalties.

"The penalty situation for us does not depict a disciplined football team and its going to get to us unless we decide to be better. I'm very happy to win, but the demeanor of our team as this game continued was not what I'm looking for. It's not the kind of team that we've packaged. I think they just got sloppy given the condition and the situation, and to let them come back and score 21 points was disconcerting.

"I was not happy with the whole demeanor of our team. We need to be better, we need to be classier, we need to be... you know, penalties? It's just ridiculous."