Villanova had a 48-31 lead and got the ball back with just under a minute remaining. Under normal circumstances, most teams would go into the victory formation and take a knee after recovering the on-side kick and allow time to expire. It's the safest way to go about things. Last night, Andy Talley's team lined up in an offensive formation, however, and handed the ball off to Fred O'Connor -- twice.
Albany's head coach Greg Gattuso is watching his team struggle in the CAA during his first season in charge of the Great Danes. When he saw O'Connor run forward twice, gaining 20 yards, he was mad at Villanova. The Wildcats, he believed, should have taken their knee and their win.
"When there is 30 seconds on the clock, the great ones kneel, period," he said to reporters after the game. "I think that was so little class it shocked me."
If it happened on a similar night in September, if it happens next week, or in the playoffs, there is no doubt that Andy Talley would have kneeled. Talley's teams have played in some lopsided games before, but even this season -- against Fordham -- the head coach didn't try to run it up. He put fourth-string freshman running back Matt Gudzak in for the fourth quarter to run up the middle and run the clock, and the kid went 60+ yards to score, forcing the 'Cats to play mostly walk-ons to keep things under control.
What Talley did was something that American football culture celebrates -- he gave the four-year senior walk-on a chance to play in the team's final home game, in junk time. It was exactly the sort of thing that viewers were rooting for while watching the classic football movie Rudy.
The real events that that movie were based upon were almost identical. In 1975, Notre Dame was hosting Georgia Tech in their final home game. After a late touchdown put the Irish up 24-3, coach Dan Devine sent his hard-working walk-on Rudy Ruettiger out to take the field in junk-time -- and he sacked the quarterback (after maybe being offsides).
Notre Dame didn't call a house-blitz on that play, and Villanova didn't call any sort of trick play last night either. The 'Cats ran O'Connor up the middle out of a standard offensive formation -- the type of play that normally results in 5 or fewer yards if the defense is trying at all, and shouldn't result in much yardage at all with the deep back-ups on the field.
Talley gave a hat-tip to a football player who came to Villanova for a chance to put the helmet on for a little longer. His career will end when the 'Cats season ends, and he likely won't play another snap. He got nothing from Villanova over four years, except "limited playing time," according to his bio, and while Talley didn't technically owe him anything, it was a sign of appreciation to let the senior run forward into the pile to kill the clock last night.
Is it class-less to let a senior walk-on who worked his butt off for your program have a moment on Senior Night, in front of his parents and friends?
Gattuso compared Talley unfavorably to Joe Paterno -- and maybe Paterno (who Gattuso played for at Penn State) wouldn't have honored his walk-on, but Penn State isn't Villanova. At Penn State, they have so many players on the roster that they use some numbers twice -- one walk-on can't have the same impact.
"He mentioned Joe Paterno to me, and how he looked up to him. I can promise you this, he's no Joe Paterno after this, doing something like that," Gattuso exhaled.
"Joe Paterno is a legend, I would never pretend to be like Joe Paterno or anybody else," Talley responded. "I am Andy Talley. Check my record, pal. When he gets to that point, he can come talk to me about coaching."
O'Connor entered the game with just six career carries, none of them going for 19 yards like his first touch on Saturday night. Now he has eight carries, and unless the improbable happens, that will be his career stat-line: eight carries for 39 yards (4.9 ypc).
As Talley pointed out, the Great Danes kept their first team in the whole game, despite a score line that got as lop-sided as 42-10 at one point, and an effort by Villanova to use their bench late in the game.
Meanwhile Gattuso claimed that his team "did it right" in the press conference by running the ball in the fourth-quarter, they actually scored both of their late touchdowns with passing plays -- setting up the first one with a long pass and then primarily advancing the ball in the last five minutes with passes of 7, 13, 6, 14, and 25 yards. It was in his right to try and score, however, just as it was right for Villanova to let a walk-on carry the ball one last time.
With 30 seconds left, most teams kneel, but on Senior Night, the rules are different. It is a time to show respect and appreciation for the unheralded players who work hard to help your team win -- even though they almost never play.