By David Coulson
College Sports Journal
VILLANOVA, Pa. — When you coach 30 seasons at the same school, win a national championship and spend 35 years overall as a head coach, panic doesn’t easily set in.
The multitude of experiences logged by Andy Talley and his veteran staff translated into a sense of calm and determination Saturday evening at Villanova Stadium when the Villanova Wildcats found themselves trailing Liberty 13-0 in the second quarter and 22-14 after three periods.
And it ultimately proved the confidence that resulted in a 29-22 victory that vaulted fifth-ranked Villanova into the quarterfinals of the NCAA Division I Football Championship Subdivision playoffs.
Playing through a steady rain that made conditions miserable throughout the game, the Wildcats struck for two fourth-quarter touchdowns and overcame four turnovers to overcome the talented Flames, who were playing just their second playoff game ever.
Junior quarterback/miracle worker John Robertson hit Kevin Gulyas on a 70-yard scoring strike less than two minutes in the final period, converted a two-conversion run on almost sure will and capped a brilliant, 18-play, 84-yard drive on his one-yard scoring dash with 1:12 remaining to orchestrate the victory.
“We turned the ball over uncharacteristically,” said Talley. “You have to be special to overcome that.”
On a day more suited to Noah and his Ark, rather than college football, Talley, Robertson and company illustrated again that the prevailing theme of the playoffs is survive and advance.
Just as three-time defending national champion North Dakota State showed in its second-round playoff win Saturday at home against gritty South Dakota State, you don’t get extra credit for style points.
As former Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis so often said, just win, baby.
The victory earned Talley a surprising reunion this Saturday with longtime Delaware adversary K.C. Keeler, whose Sam Houston State Bearkats scored their second straight win against a higher-ranked opponent by beating No. 3 seeded Jacksonville State on the road.
In other second-round playoff action, top-seeded New Hampshire crushed Fordham, No. 4 Eastern Washington won a rematch with Montana, No. 5 Illinois State avenged its only loss of the season by toppling Northern Iowa, No. 7 Coastal Carolina drilled Richmond and No. 8 Chattanooga — playing its first postseason game in almost 30 years torched — torched Indiana State.
Villanova can earn a likely trip to North Dakota State and the deafeningly-loud Fargo Dome by beating Sam Houston State in a game this writer had long thought would have made for an excellent FCS title showdown.
The Bison will have to survive a visit from Coastal Carolina on Saturday for the second year in a row to set that up.
In other quarterfinal action, New Hampshire hosts Chattanooga on Friday night and Eastern Washington entertains Illinois State on Saturday on the other side of the draw.
At some point, nearly every championship team finds itself at a point of crisis against playoff-caliber competition. And success comes from digging deep enough to find a way to win.
“We did it at Syracuse (where the Wildcats came from behind several times, lost a chance for a win over an FBS opponent when a chip shot field goal was missed at the end of regulation and lost in double overtime when a two-point conversion was stopped), we did it at William & Mary and we did it at Delaware,” Talley said. “At this point of the season it has become part of our DNA.”
One of the keys to the game was how the Villanova defense responded when it had it backs up against its own goal line and it forced Liberty to settle for three John Lunsford field goals, sited of giving up touchdowns.
“That was huge,” said Villanova linebacker Don Cherry, who had six tackles and two tackles for loss as part of that unified, team effort. “It really helped our confidence.”
One of the key plays of the game occurred in the second quarter with Liberty already leading 10-0 and threatening to turn the contest into a TKO.
On third and goal from the five, Liberty coach Turner Gill reached into a time capsule and raced down the sidelines, resembling the All-American quarterback he once was at Nebraska to call a late time out.
But instead of trying to get the ball to Darrin Peterson, an NFL-caliber receiver, Gill called for quarterback Josh Woodrum to run an option play that brough back memories of Tom Osborne’s old Nebraska I-Formation.
Woodrum was crushed by defensive tackle Pat Williams and defensive end Noble Ajakaiye for a one-yard loss to force another Lunsford field goal.
Instead of leading by what might have been an insurmountable 17 points, the Flames left it as a two-possession game.
And it did take long for Villanova to come storming back.
An 87-yard connection between Robertson and Gulyas — the longest pass play in Villanova history — set up Robertson’s three-yard touchdown plunge.
Then, Liberty returnman Alpha Jalloh, who had set up Woodrum’s first Liberty touchdown with a game-opening, 64-yard burst, made an ill-advised decision to take the kickoff in this 13-7 contest out of his end zone.
Jalloh was hit by Rasaan Stewart and fumbled. T.J. White recovered for Villanova at the Flame 16.
Back-up tailback Austin Medley needed four consecutive carries from the Wildcats’ spread attack to bang into the end zone for the tying score and Chris Gough’s extra point gave Villanova its first lead at 14-3.
A questionable call — one of several curious replay decisions in this game — when Robertson appeared to be passing was turned into a 58-yard fumble return touchdown by Nick Newman to provide Liberty with a 19-14 halftime advantage.
But the Villanova defense came up big again to stop Woodrum’s two-point pass attempt and it held Liberty to just three points on a short-field, 45-yard drive in the third period.
The second long pass completion from Robertson to Gulyas gave the Wildcats the touchdown it needed to pull within striking distance and Robertson’s two-pointer tied it.
The final, winning drive came down to Villanova’s offensive line dominating Liberty on zone read plays and Kevin Monangai (20 carries, 102 yards) tearing the heart out of the Flames with 47 yards rushing on the 18-play, 84-yard march to set up Robertson’s game-winning TD.
Robertson said the Wildcats knew they were wearing down the Liberty defense and had confidence at the end.
“The drive before that, we were moving it and I fumbled,” Robertson said. “We had to step it up. We pulled together.”
Villanova’s defense then took care of business in the final minute to complete a gutsy win.
“This is not the most talented team we have had,” Talley said. “We’ve had six 10-win teams. The national championship team (in 2009) was much more talented.”
Talley called Liberty the best team that Villanova had played this season and felt fortunate to be playing at home, where the Wildcats have lost only once in postseason play.
“The name of the game is to be home for the playoffs,” said Talley. “We could have been on a plane to Alabama.”
Instead, the Wildcats earned the right to play at home at least one more time this season.