For the longest time, it felt like it was meant to be for the Villanova Wildcats. But alas, all they'll go home with is the feeling of what could have been, and the knowledge that they have the talent to match up with a mid-tier ACC program. The Wildcats fell in heartbreaking fashion 27-26 in double-overtime at the Carrier Dome on Friday night.
John Robertson looked good on the opening drive, finding Poppy Livers several times before the drive stalled in Syracuse territory, but there were early signs that the 'Nova offense would find some success.
On the ensuing Syracuse possession, Cameron McCurry was called for a questionable running into the kicker penalty to negate a three and out. After a long Terrel Hunt pass to get them out of trouble, Prince Tyson-Gulley found a hole and took it 65 yards to paydirt to put the Orange on top 7-0.
Robertson and the offense continued to find success through the air, highlighted by a 35-yard completion to Mike Burke. New placekicker Chris Gough would miss a 34-yard field goal from the right hash, highlighting concerns over Mark Hamilton's graduation.
However, the Villanova defense responded with another three and out, and Robertson and the offense went to work. After converting a 4th-and-1, Robertson hit Poppy Livers on a crossing route to set up a couple of bulldozing runs by Kevin Monangai, who punched it in from 5 yards to knot the score at 7-7.
Terrel Hunt finally began to show flashes of his talent shortly after. With Villanova consistently playing off the line of scrimmage in coverage, Hunt went to Ashton Broyld again and again to march the Orange offense down the field, but the 'Nova defense stood tall at the edge of the red zone, holding the Orange to a field goal. That's when things got interesting.
After 'Nova elected to punt, Hunt lost his cool late in the first half. After being tackled by Dillon Lucas, Hunt threw a clear punch and was subsequently ejected. Orange head coach Scott Shafer was forced to go to sophomore signal caller and Pennsylvania native Austin Wilson, who got a few snaps in before the teams went in to the half with Syracuse on top 10-7.
Wilson quickly proved he belonged early in the second half, aided by a questionable pass interference call on a pass that was clearly uncatchable. Nevertheless, Wilson was efficient hitting his receivers, and Adonis Ameen-Moore powered it in from 2 yards out to put extend the Orange lead to 17-7.
The teams traded sputtering drives, before Poppy Livers executed the play of the game. After a booming punt that looked like it would eliminate any field position advantage, the diminutive WR took it 68 yards to the house, peeling off an excellent Don Cherry block to bring the 'Cats within a field goal heading in to the 4th quarter.
John Robertson went back to work after another defensive stand, eating tons of clock and driving the offense down the field. The drive was highlighted by a wheel route to Gary Underwood, along with a Robertson scramble on 3rd and long to set up first and goal. The 'Cats couldn't punch it in, and Chris Gough redeemed himself by converting a short FG to tie the game at 17 with 7:14 to go.
The Villanova defense was immediately up to the task, with Dillon Lucas snuffing out a screen pass for a big loss that forced Syracuse to punt. John Robertson, nursing an injury at this point, showed the country why he's considered one of the best quarterbacks in all of the FCS. He drove Villanova down the field efficiently, picking up yardage with his legs and through the air, while killing the clock to keep the ball away from Syracuse.
A dump pass to Earnest Pettway put the Wildcats in to the Syracuse red zone with under a minute remaining, and forced 'Cuse to burn all three timeouts. With 15 seconds left on the clock, Chris Gough lined up for a 25-yard field goal, but pushed his kick wide right, his second miss of the evening.
Syracuse opted for defense first in OT, and John Robertson primarily kept the ball on Villanova's offensive series. The 'Cats couldn't get it to the end zone. Andy Talley went back to Gough again, and he converted a 27-yard field goal to get Villanova on the board.
The Villanova defense, likely still picking themselves up after an emotional letdown, let Ameen-Moore rumble to the 2-yard line and defeat felt imminent. But a goal-line stand was in the cards and forced Ryan Norton to hit a 22-yard field goal to tie the game at 20.
In the second overtime, Villanova elected to defend, and thought they had come up with yet another goal-line stand. But on 4th and goal, Syracuse pulled out the trickery that Andy Talley has become so famous for, with punter Riley Dixon throwing a touchdown on a fake field goal.
The Wildcats responded quickly however on their possession. First, Robertson hit Underwood on a crucial third down to set up 1st and goal, and then hit Underwood on the wheel route for a touchdown. In what was absolutely the right call, Talley opted to go for 2. John Robertson's number was called, but his designed draw was stuffed by Syracuse.
All in all, a great effort from the 'Cats, and they frankly deserved more. They will feel hard done, but they should head in back home to meet Fordham next weekend full of confidence.