Fans were disappointed to hear that John Robertson would sit out Villanova's quarterfinal match-up with Sam Houston State with a concussion, but back-up Chris Polony wasn't going to let their spirits stay low. Polony passed for 228 yards and 1 touchdown and ran for another 87 and two rushing scores for the Wildcats, playing well off of the running game that pounded Sam Houston State for 286 yards. Monangai helped things along with 166 yards on the ground and a touchdown. The Bearkats had a hard time handling the Villanova running game throughout.
"Chris Polony did a great job at quarterback, we're really happy with what he did, he gave us a chance to win the game," head coach Andy Talley stated. "I didn’t [think he would run like that], but I think he’s seen John [Robertson] do it, and I think if he had his druthers for the course of a season he wouldn’t as much, but I think because he knows it’s part of our offense — and we did leave a couple of running plays in there for him, and then we ran him down on the goal line — I think he’s really worked hard on being in better shape as a running quarterback."
"He really did [come through big], he ran the ball well, he threw the ball well, got out of trouble; I mean, we put up 30-something points, he’s the real deal."
The Wildcats had a chance to tie things up with a late field goal, but a penalty marred the attempt, causing the 'Cats to miss and fall short. Sam Houston took over with 30 seconds left and allowed time to expire, taking the three-point win, 34-31, and moving on to the semi-finals.
"If I had some things that I might take back, I would have taken back some of those easy scores that we gave them," the coach noted. "They picked on our young corners with the kid from TCU and really hurt us.
"I thought they played just a little better than us for the entire game."
Villanova's defense did a good job against the Sam Houston run game in the first half, slowing them down and holding them to just 76 yards. After three quarters, the Bearkats had just 78 yards on the ground, but they eventually used their deep running rotation to gain on the Wildcats, adding another 72 yards in the fourth quarter.
Most of the damage came through the air, however, with SHSU passing for 303 of their 454 yards against the 'Cats. Villanova out-gained them with 515 yards of total offense.
Villanova was penalized 12 times, however, costing them 88 yards. Sam Houston was flagged just six times in the contest, for less than half of that yardage -- a factor that certainly had an effect on the game, especially on the Wildcats' final drive.
"It was very disappointing; the penalty situation for us and it is hard to believe that we could amass that many penalties this late in the season," Talley said. "I feel like maybe we didn't handle the pressure as well as we should have in some critical points of the game."
A missed extra point in the first quarter sent the 'Cats into half-time with a deficit, but a third quarter two-point conversion tied things up at 24.
SHSU quickly stopped the Villanova offense on their first possession, forcing them to go four-and-out. The ensuing punt was blocked by Josh Lyons, and the Bearkats had an easy drive from the Villanova 17 yard line to score. They got across the goal line with a pass from Jared Johnson to leading receiver LaDarius Brown to take the 7-0 lead.
Johnson would go on to put up 303 yards passing and 3 touchdowns, but just 33 yards on the ground. He played the game despite having a case of the flu all week.
Unlike last week, however, the Wildcats' offense didn't wait long to respond. On the next possession, the Wildcats used Monangai to chip away on three runs, taking them 19 yards down the field, then let Polony throw, finding Monangai for 3 yards in the flat, then hitting Earnest Pettway for a big 14-yard gain. They capped the drive with a 54-yard pass to Poppy Livers, who found a hole in the secondary to dart into the endzone. Livers led all Wildcat receivers with 96 yards in the game.
They missed the extra point, however, keeping SHSU in the lead.
On their next possession, the Wildcats again used the same formula, mixing Monangai on the ground with well-timed passing in an up-tempo attack. Starting with just over seven minutes to go in the first quarter, they ran 13 plays for 99 yards from their own 1 yard line, to take it all the way to the Sam Houston State 36.
Staring at 4th and 2, the Villanova coaching staff decided to go for it, and Polony showed off his legs on the play, running through a seam in the coverage to score a go-ahead touchdown.
The Bearkats weren't done yet, however, responding early in the fourth quarter with a 12-play, 80 yard drive of their own that ended with another Johnson pass to Gerald Thomas for score from the four yard line.
The teams would trade field goals on the final two possessions, with SHSU's Luc Swimberghe connecting from 32 yards out, and Chris Gough launching a 46-yarder through the uprights with just one second left in the half. The 'Cats went into the locker-room down 17-16.
Villanova did a good job against the Sam Houston State running game early, but allowed the Bearkats to chip away with 142 yards in the air in the first half. The Bearkats scored their three touchdowns through the air, though the two first half were just 2 and 4 yards. They opened the second half, however, with a long bomb to LaDarrius Brown for 66 yards and a score.
Brown finished the game with 174 yards receiving and two touchdowns.
"If I were them, I would have gone to him [Brown] on every play," Talley said. "I don't know why they didn't go to him more."
The Wildcats managed to drive to the SHSU 48 yard line on their first possession of the half, but were stopped and forced to punt on fourth down and seven yards. Starting from their own 20, the Bearkats were overwhelmed by Villanova's defense, however, and went four-and-out to give Nova the ball on their own 42.
Again, they handed off to Monangai, who hit the hole at full speed, shaking off the first line of defense and darting 58 yards to the endzone. As they did last week, the Wildcats made up for their early missed extra-point with a two-point conversion, with Polony finding Poppy Livers in the back of the endzone. The score was tied at 24 each.
In the fourth quarter, the Kats (with a "K") took over early, with 13:32 to go, and ran an eight play drive on the back of Keshawn Hill's running. Though Villanova allowed them to get down to the 13 yard line, the defense held them there, forcing a field goal, to put them ahead 27-24.
Villanova took the lead with 7:15 left in the game, after driving down to the SHSU 1-yard line. Polony got a nice block from Kevin Monangai and ran the ball in himself for the score. A made point-after put them ahead 31-27.
Sam Houston State responded with a long drive of their own, scoring on a short run from the 1-yard line to make it 34-31 with just over four minutes left.
"The other disappointment was when we put our final touchdown in, that is when a championship team gets it done defensively. We just let them move the ball too quickly down the field on that last drive. I was hoping for a stop, we would have been in better shape."
The Wildcats final drive took them into SHSU territory, but not deep enough. It seemed as if they might have had a home run pass with Poppy Livers darting down the north sideline, but the referee stopped the play after a 32 yard gain, saying that the receiver stepped out of bounds. The 'Cats would eventually get as close as the 26, before a sack pushed them back to the 29.
In an effort to tie the game, Chris Gough lined up for a 46 yard field goal that he appeared to have, had the team not been called for a delay of game penalty that moved him back five yards.
"We kick so seldom that I don't think the application of getting everyone on the field, checking the time, and getting the ball snapped on time was all that great," Talley explained. "That is on us. I think that our whole level of play on special teams went downhill this year."
From 51-yards out, Gough's kick wasn't good.
"I would have to say our kicking game this year is probably the worst I have ever seen at our school. We have a lot of work to do for us to get this far with this kind of stuff. The kicker is new, the field kicker that we have on scholarship isn't ready yet and the punter is new. We just didn't do the kind of job we needed to do in the kicking game.
"That is frustrating, but I need to look at eleven wind and think, 'we are pretty blessed.'"
The Wildcats played well without star quarterback John Robertson, but there was a feeling that perhaps they could have used him in a close game today.
"His mindset was that he was letting us down," Talley stated. "However, he has had a concussion before and he knows how it feels, but he didn't feel right and was worried that the might not make the right decisions on the field.
"I accepted it because I had thought about it all week: We were going to play without probably the best player in FCS football. While it was hard, we are all here for the betterment of our student-athletes and I wouldn't want to put him on the field. It is just a game and it is his head. You worry about long-term effects and there is so much now with concussion issues that everyone is much more concerned about that kind of thing."
Villanova lost at home in the playoffs for just the second time in school history. The Wildcats are now 8-2 in home playoff games, and it was just the fifth win of SHSU head coach K.C. Keeler's career against Andy Talley. It was his first time coaching against Villanova in the playoffs.
"Emotional win," Keeler said. "I think Andy [Talley] and his staff do as good of a job as any staff in the country coaching their kids. We found out just prior to the game that they weren't going to have their star. It didn't surprise me, I played against Polony before; I knew his dad from the Lehigh Valley, and he played much like Robertson.
"Hats off to them; they had a great season. They took a situation where that guy is not only their best player, but their emotional leader. They made some plays early in the game and got some momentum going and they started believing that they could win with anybody, and it's a great tribute to that coaching staff."
SHSU will now head to Fargo next weekend to face the NDSU Bison.
"We were an overachieving team, we won eleven games and I have no complaints," Talley said. "They were as good a team as I have ever had here at Villanova and I am really proud of them.
"I told the players it is my twelfth playoff game and there is only one time we made it all the way to the end. Someone always has to have a broken heart at the end of these games. It is time to look at the positive things; we had a strong senior class and they left a lot of great memories for our team to build upon for next season."