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Villanova vs. James Madison recap: Wildcats come back and pull-away late against Dukes

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Villanova defeated James Madison in their CAA opener, 49 to 31.

Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

The Wildcats scored 14 points early, but the first half was largely rough-going for the Wildcats, who struggled to contain JMU quarterback Vad Lee. The Dukes were ahead 21-14 at the half, and they extended that lead with a 33-yard field goal after the half.

"I thought our first half was really sloppy," Talley said. "While we have a good football team, sometimes we can be our own worst enemy.

"This was a gut-check game for us. I felt it would be, after Syracuse and Fordham, I wasn't quite sure what we have and knowing the CAA, I know we're going to have games like we had today where you're going to be in jeopardy at times, and behind maybe at halftime. We were going to have to figure out if we had the ability to rally and come back."

Lee, known as a runner from his time at Georgia Tech, where he ran the triple-option did all of his damage as a passer against the ‘Cats, hitting three different receivers for touchdowns in the first half. The ‘Cats looked out-played until a fourth-down conversion half-way through the third quarter turned things back in their favor.

The Dukes gained 568 yards on offense, slightly more than the 'Cats 563, helped greatly by 406 yards in the air by Lee.

"I think JMU Peaked for us," Talley said. "They pushed us, and pushed us, and pushed us to play our very best and make some big plays."

After Villanova marched downfield on their opening drive, capping it with Mike Burkes first career touchdown catch on a 6-yard pass from John Robertson, the Dukes responded. Barely into the start of the second quarter, Lee found his man -- Ishmael Hyman, uncovered downfield on a passing play that took JMU 56 yards to the endzone. The young cornerback was caught fooled by the play action, allowing Hyman to run uncovered downfield.

The fireworks continued a few plays later, when Villanova's Kevin Monanagai broke loose for a 62 yard touchdown run to keep the Wildcats ahead.

That would be their last lead until just under 2 minutes were left in the third.

The Dukes drove down again on consecutive possessions to score on a 6-yard and 18-yard passes to have a 21-14 lead that they held onto into half-time.

As good as JMU looked at times on offense, their running game wasn't necessary leading the way. The Dukes gained 162 yards on the ground, 113 of them by Lee, who averaged just 2.6 yards per carry, often running right into a pile of Villanova defenders.

"I definitely feel like we got a bunch of clean hits off on the quarterback, which is always our goal," safety Joe Sarnese said. "[Lee] was doing a real good job sliding, but a few times he didn't and he paid for it."

The Wildcats suffered a number of turnovers, losing three fumbles, and dropped a lot of passes early on. The execution was missing through most of the game, but the 'Cats started to show the team that looked unstoppable against Fordham again halfway through the third quarter. Robertson picked up 16-yards rushing on a fourth-down conversion attempt, and finished the drive with a touchdown pass to tight end Earnest Pettway in the corner of the endzone to re-take the lead by four points.

"They keep their poise and I think they are prepared to play hard for four quarters," Talley stated about his team's comeback ability.

"At some point, you feel like you can break a team. I think it's going to be real hard to break us."

Pettway was the target again when the 'Cats got the ball back at the end of the quarter, putting them up 35-24. It was all Wildcats from then on. The 'Cats would score two more times on the following possessions, benefiting from two interceptions grabbed by Sarnese, giving them the ball on their own 29, and the JMU 5, respectively. Monangai and Austin Medley scored both on short rushing plays. Putting the 'Cats up 42-24.

"We needed a big play on defense to spark us a bit, we were kind flat and they were of driving on us, which is really uncharacteristic of us," he said of the play. "I think it was a point in the game where we really needed to strip momentum, and we did."

"I think what kills us the most is the big plays, so in the first half we didn't do a really good job, we had too many mental busts which was killing us."

Those 28 unanswered points put the Wildcats firmly in control of the game with just 11:03 left in the game. JMU scored again with five minutes left when Lee punched it in on a short run, but the 'Cats answered back with a 69-yard shovel-pass to Gary Underwood with just four minutes left to seal the Dukes' fate.

"Momentum kind of changed," recalled Sarnese. "Once things started going our way, once we started making plays, and we just needed a few big plays to spark that. It was real devastating, I think we put the ball on the ground maybe three times and we couldn't catch a break."

"It's not a great place to be in the third quarter in this league, but I have a feeling we're going to be there a few times this year - especially away," Talley added.

Robertson did his damage in the air for Villanova, passing for 337 yards and running for just 19. His running was limited after taking a helmet to his body early in the game, causing a stinger that made it uncomfortable to run. While Coach Talley thought he might need to ask his quarterback to run anyway after halftime, it turned out he didn't need to.

The 'Cats gained 226 yards on the ground with Monangai leading the way with 129 on 15 attempts (an average of 8.6 yards per carry) and two scores. Austin Medley also looked good, averaging 5.1 yards per game on 10 attempts as well.

"They were definitely getting fatigued," Monangai said of the Dukes' late in the game. "We were pretty conditioned, and at practice we have a couple periods where we work on fast up-tempo offense and our linemen in particular are pretty used to it. They did an amazing job of pushing them off the ball, so we're really happy with what they did."

Injuries are hurting the Wildcats after three games, with defensive lineman Tanoh Kpassagnon leaving the game with a knee injury early and not returning -- it isn't clear how long he will be out. Linebacker Corey Majors missed the game with a concussion as well, which forced Austin Calitro to move back to from defensive end to provide depth -- though Calitro may have to move back to the defensive line with Kpassagnon out.

"We're not deep at any position," Talley explained about the gravity of his injuries."Now we're really short at defensive end.

"John [Robertson] can't be hurt, he's got to be healthy. He's the show."