It looked bad for the Wildcats in the first half, but they found their stride against the Liberty Flames late, to take home an impressive 29-22 comeback victory. The Wildcats advance to the NCAA Division I (FCS) Football Championship quarterfinals next week, against Sam Houston State, in what will likely be another home game.
"The game presented everything to us that we thought Liberty would bring to the game. They are a champion and they played that way," head coach Andy Talley said of the Flames. "They were everything we thought they would be on both sides of the ball. They have some powerful weapons.
"We have been bred for a competitive game for 60 minutes and we talked about that as a football team all week. Having been in the playoffs as many times as we've been, you know that the team you are going to play is going to be there. They're going to be there a lot and you just have to make sure you can come up with the plays you need to make in the critical parts of the game, but especially in the last quarter."
Villanova relied on Kevin Monangai to get things done in the second half, riding his strong running skills to keep their defense rested and move the chains. He chipped in 102 yards of offense, though John Robertson gets credit for two of the three touchdowns the 'Cats had on the ground. The quarterback also connected on eight of 19 pass attempts for 217 yards and one passing score -- a long one to Kevin Gulyas, who had 157 yards receiving.
"The way they play cover-4, it's basically a matchup zone on the outside," Gulyas explained. "Their safeties fly down when motions come. We faked the handoff and that allowed a one-on-one opportunity."
Villanova started the game ugly. Liberty returned the opening kickoff for 72 yards after a special teams mistake to start their first drive on the Villanova 27. It took the Flames just five plays to punch the ball into the endzone on a quarterback keeper by Josh Woodrum.
Down seven to start the game, the Wildcats couldn't get much going offensively, going three-and-out on their first possession and giving the Flames the ball on a short punt at their own 43.
"Well what happened was, we lost Jake Prus, our guard, we had to move Pete [Sotiriou], who had been our center -- our back-up center -- to guard, a position he barely plays and he had a big dude on him," Talley explained. "We struggled early on and a lot of times what they were doing was they would hold the two inside defensive linemen kind of in a pitter-patty, keeping an eye on John and weren't rushing the passer, which then put their two ends one-on-one with our tackles. The one end they had there, took our kid to school for about half the game -- we could not block him."
Liberty wasn't able to get very far on their second possession, driving 24 yards to the Villanova 23 before being stopped by the Villanova defense. The Flames, however, have one of the best kickers in college football right now in John Lunsford, who lined up for a 50-yard shot without looking even a little nervous -- it was through the uprights with no difficulty, and had distance to spare.
Now down 10-0, Villanova was still struggling to move the ball on offense. Robertson was well contained by the Liberty defensive line, giving him no room to run and almost no time to throw.
The 'Cats finally seemed to be getting something going in the second quarter when Robertson and Monangai broke off a few runs to take the ball 31 yards, but the promising drive was cut short by a Monangai fumble -- their first of six of the game, four being lost.
"Obviously, we turned the ball over uncharacteristically," Talley said. "I was really disappointed that we turned the ball over like we did, but you have to really be special to overcome that kind of turnover situation. And then we had the punt that hit Jason [Ceneus], which was very disappointing as well. A lot of negatives can take a team down during a game."
"Six fumbles and we lost four of them. To still win a game against a team like that, that's what made me nervous about Liberty because they turned the ball over four times against JMU and still won the game."
Liberty took advantage of the fumble to drive down to the Villanova six yard line with a 48 yard pass from Woodrum to Darrin Peterson. The 'Cats defense held on to force the field goal, that put the Flames up 13-0.
With 9:19 left in the first half, Nova finally put a scoring drive. On second down and 18, after a holding penalty moved the 'Cats back, Robertson found Gulyas open downfield for the first of his long catches -- 87 yards -- and set them up on the Liberty five yard line. The quarterback ran the ball in for three yards and a touchdown two plays later to make it 13-7.
The 'Cats would finally take the lead with around 5:25 left in the half, after Alpha Jalloh fumbled (forced by Villanova freshman Rasaan Stewart) and the ball was recovered deep in Liberty territory at the 16-yard line. The Wildcats gave Austin Medley the ball three four times in a row -- the final on a nifty option pass -- to score the go-ahead touchdown.
Just when things finally looked good, the Wildcats had the lead and forced a Liberty Punt, Villanova fumbled again. Driving down to the Liberty 35 yard line, Robertson was tackled while looking to throw and fumbled right into the hands of Liberty's Nick Newman, who ran the ball 58 yards to score. Was it a fumble though? You be the judge.
After the fumble recovery touchdown, Liberty made the curious decision to go for two points, however, which failed. Leaving them ahead 19-14, where the scored remained going into the half.
In the second half, Villanova looked better. The defense began to get traction, pressuring the LU backfield and swatting at passes. Liberty scored just one more time in the game, a 21 yard field goal (on a drive extended by the Ceneus muffed punt) with five minutes left in the third quarter to go ahead 22-14.
Then, it was Villanova's turn in the fourth quarter.
On their first drive of the quarter, John Robertson spotted Gulyas open down the sideline and launched a pass that went for 70 yards and a touchdown, after he shook the defender and lost his shoe. To tie the game, the Wildcats called for the two-point conversion; a passing play that broke down, but left a lane for Robertson to find his way across the goal line.
Tied up at 22, Villanova and Liberty traded punts until the 'Cats got the ball back with 8:23 left. Having been plagued by dropped passes throughout the game to that point, Villanova was single-minded on the drive.
Monangai for 9. Robertson for 7. Monangai for 6. Austin Medley for 7. The Wildcats settled into a rhythm in the the running game, peeling off 84 yards over 18 plays and taking 7:11 off of the clock before John Robertson ran the ball in for the 1-yard touchdown.
"We did it at Syracuse. We did it at William & Mary. We did it at Delaware," Talley explained of his call to run 18-straight times. "So we've had three repetitions of doing it. And I think that tat this point in the season it becomes part of your DNA. At some point in time your luck is going to run out, but tonight it didn't. We have made enough mistakes that the law of averages went back our way."
"It was awesome watching our offensive line throw those guys around," Robertson added. "They really stepped it up for us. They were all designed runs."
Liberty burned all of their timeouts on the drive, trying to keep the 'Cats from burning off the rest of the quarter on the drive. Even so, the 'Cats kept running and kept gaining. The Liberty defense couldn't do much about it -- even on a crucial 4th and 1 at the Liberty eight yard-line, Monangai pounded through the line to keep the drive alive. Talley would not resort to the kicking game.
"My heart has been broken enough this year to know that there is no way I would have kicked a field goal [on that fourth-down]. It's John Robertson or field goal. John Robertson, field goal. I'm going with John Robertson. And I have made my mind up going into the game and I reinforced it to our staff by telling [offensive coordinator Sam Venuto, "we're going for it on fourth down."
"Liberty has one of the best kickers in the country and I didn't like our chances in overtime because of the field goal situations. We would have been in trouble in overtime."
When they finally got the ball back with 1:10 left to go, Woodrum was not able to rely on the running game to help him out -- he dropped back for 10 consecutive passes. The Wildcats would bend, but not break, on the drive.
"We have some quiet leadership on the team," according to Talley. "They have a lot of meetings that I'm not involved in. So they must be drinking the kool-aid or pounding the good book because they are together."
"I think it's a testament to our training," linebacker Don Cherry stated. "Our strength coach has us in great shape, so when it comes down to the fourth quarter or overtime like in Syracuse, we're always ready to play and it feels like the first quarter for us."