By David Coulson
College Sports Journal
BOONE, N.C. — So when can a loss really be considered a win?
In the case of Villanova’s season-opening, 27-26 double-overtime, football defeat at Syracuse last Friday night before 41,189 fans at the Carrier Dome, the Wildcats did everything but walk away with the “W.”
And in the process, Villanova established itself as one of the teams that could prove to be capable of making a run for the 2014 NCAA Division I National Championship.
It looked like the Wildcats would get a real win, rather than a moral victory, before kicker Chris Gough pushed a 25-yard field goal attempt with 15 seconds left in regulation wide right.
Rather than celebrating a hard-fought, well-deserved 20-17 win, Villanova was forced into overtime.
Gough was shaky all night as he replaced the dependable, but graduated All-American Mark Hamilton on placements. Gough hooked a 34-yard field goal effort wide left in the first period.
Ironically, Hamilton had drilled a game-winning field goal to complete a wild, 22-point, fourth-quarter comeback in the season-ending victory for the Wildcats in the Battle of the Blue rivalry game with Delaware last year.
To no one’s surprise, true freshman Steve Weyler has replaced senior Gough as the first-string place kicker for Saturday’s home opener against Fordham.
Villanova still had a shot at winning the game in the second overtime, but after a John Robertson-to-Gary Underwood, nine-yard touchdown pass pulled the Wildcats to within one, Robertson’s two-point conversion run was stopped just short of the goal line.
Villanova coach Andy Talley, who was beginning his 30th year patrolling the VU sidelines, was justifiably proud of his team’s effort, but utterly stunned with the way things finished in regulation.
Surprisingly, special teams proved to be Villanova’s undoing in this potential upset.
A running-into-the-punter penalty gave the ball back to Syracuse in the first period and set up the Orange’s first touchdown and SU scored for its final time when place holder Riley Dixon popped up from his kneeling position for a fake field goal and fired a one-yard touchdown pass to Kendall Moore after the Wildcat defense had pulled off another goal-line stand.
About the only thing special on special teams for Villanova was Poppy Livers’ 68-yard punt return for a touchdown that reenergized the Wildcats late in the third quarter, pulling them to within 17-14. It was only the second TD punt return in Talley’s tenure at VU — both of them by Livers.
The defense, led by outstanding play from the likes of linebackers Don Cherry and Joey Harmon and strong safety Matt McCann, was impressive even with the fact that Syracuse starting quarterback Terrel Hunt was ejected late in the first half for throwing a punch at a Villanova defender.
Actually, if the truth is stated, backup signal-caller Austin Wilson was far superior to Hunt in this game anyway.
But despite the narrow loss to this Atlantic Coast Conference foe, Villanova showed it has the tools, with a run-stopping defense, Robertson’s playmaking ability at quarterback and a solid secondary to beat just about anyone in the Football Championship Subdivision ranks.
All the Wildcats need to do is stay healthy as they run the Colonial Athletic Conference gauntlet, let Robertson, who had 314 yards of total offense against Syracuse, and the defense show their talents and find a dependable kicker to make a deep run in the FCS playoffs.