Villanova football observers will speculate throughout the off-season whether the Wildcats would have escaped Sam Houston State with a win on Saturday afternoon if John Robertson had started at quarterback. If he is named the Walter Payton Award winner on Monday night, the clamor on that may get precipitously louder.
Likely the best player in all of FCS football, Robertson is Villanova's game-changer on the gridiron.
The Wildcats proved that their offense had talent, however, with back-up quarterback Chris Polony throwing for 228 yards (13/24 passing) and a touchdown with no interceptions, the 'Cats offense scored 31 points and moved downfield with relative ease through much of the game. Without Robertson, the Wildcats lacked that dynamic element -- the football voodoo magic that has folks calling him "Pinball" or "the REAL Johnny Football."
Kevin Monangai is the workhorse of the offense, and he worked harder than anyone on the field to pick up 166 yards on the ground against an SHSU defense that had been stingy on the run against most opponents. Poppy Livers was the reliable option in the passing game that grabbed four balls for 96 yards and a long touchdown. Villanova completed 13 passes to eight different receivers, mixing and matching to find the seams and mis-matches -- the scheme worked.
When plays broke down, however, there was no voodoo elixir to find a first down. That missing piece can be blamed for why the Wildcats stalled on their final drive and had to line up for a long field goal -- something they almost never did this season.
If Robertson were available, the Villanova staff would never line up for a field goal. Fourth-and-long to win the game? No problem for Pinball.
He wasn't available on Saturday, however. He suffered a concussion in the second round game against Liberty -- not bad enough to come off the field during the game, but serious enough that he was checked out afterward it seems. That put him into Villanova's concussion protocol -- and the Wildcats take head injuries very seriously.
First, a concussed player has to pass the team's concussion tests within 48 hours of the reported injury; if they fail, they're done for the week. If they pass, they still won't practice, and another set of tests happens on Friday. If they pass after 48 hours and on Friday, they can play on Saturday -- if they're up to it.
Robertson was an interesting case for the Wildcats. He passed the first test, and was cleared by tests on Friday. Going into Saturday morning Mass, the coaching staff assumed that their star was going to take the field -- that assumption was wrong.
Despite the tests, when the star quarterback woke up on Saturday, his head still felt "fuzzy." A quarterback has to make a lot of decisions on the field, it isn't a position that works on instinct alone, and he wasn't sure he could do that. He informed the coaching staff and was pulled from the depth chart.
"His mindset was that he was letting us down," Talley said after the game. "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."
Villanova's coaches could have insisted on him playing. It was the FCS Quarterfinals after all, and if the 'Cats lost, they'd be done. A must-win game without your star player is a scary thought, but while other coaches have pushed players into service despite head injuries, Talley and his staff accepted the situation and adjusted their plans.
"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."
It was the right decision. John Robertson has a scholarship to a very good school, but what is the value of that education if he suffers permanent damage to the one organ that an education benefits? He has a future ahead of him both in football and out of it, that is bigger than one game -- even a quarterfinal.
Robertson will get scouted by the NFL next season. He fits the mold of a Johnny Manziel or Marcus Mariota, both Heisman winners who either were or will be high draft picks.
Villanova has another year of Pinball's football voodoo to look forward to. Things fizzled earlier than expected this year, but that trade-off ensures that the quarterback can go on to play again as a senior.
What if he played and played poorly because of the concussion's effects on his decision-making? What if his bell got rung again so soon after? The short-term rewards of having him on the field never would outweigh the risks for his health, his football career, and long-term happiness.
In other words, Villanova did the right thing. It cost them a game, but it protected a member of the community, and that is something everyone in NovaNation should be proud of.
Penalties and defensive mistakes cost the Wildcats a quarterfinal game moreso than missing Robertson. While a fully-healthy Robertson might have erased some of those mistakes with a dazzling highlight-reel play, the concussed version would have just been taking an unneeded risk.