By David Coulson
College Sports Journal
VILLANOVA, PA. — Playing without its emotional leader, John Robertson, when the junior quarterback and likely Walter Payton Award winner suffered a reoccurrence of concussion symptoms on Saturday morning, Villanova might have considered itself fortunate to be one final drive away from winning, or at least sending its quarterfinal-round game with Sam Houston State into overtime Saturday afternoon in the NCAA Division I Football Championships.
But the last place Villanova wanted to find itself was facing a 51-yard field goal attempt to extend its season.
Those fears came to bear when beleaguered place kicker Chris Gough missed that kick barely wide left with 30 seconds to play in a 34-31 loss that matched Villanova coach Andy Talley against former Delaware coach and longtime rival K.C. Keeler, in his first year at Sam Houston State.
Jalen Overstreet’s one-yard touchdown smash with 4:03 remaining lifted the Bearkats into the lead after Villanova had taken a 31-27 lead on backup quarterback Chris Polony’s one-yard TD sweep midway through the fourth quarter.
“We just needed one more stop,” said Talley. “And we couldn’t get it.”
The Bearkats meet three-time defending national champion and No. 2 seed North Dakota State next weekend in the FCS semifinals. Top-seeded New Hampshire faces No. 5 Illinois State in the other half of the draw.
North Dakota State held off Coastal Carolina 39-32 at home on Saturday, while New Hampshire outlasted Chattanooga 35-30 on Friday night. Illinois State crushed No. 4 Eastern Washington.
Villanova ended its 2014 football season similar to the way it started it on Labor Day weekend.
The Wildcats lost at Syracuse when Gough failed on a 25-yard field goal attempt with 12 seconds to play in regulation and the Orange pulled out a 27-26 victory in double overtime by stopping Robertson’s two-point conversion try.
The Wildcats only other loss was a 10-9 heartbreaker at Richmond in the middle of the season when Gough failed to convert an extra point.
It was amazing that the Wildcats trailed 34-31 in the final 30 seconds with Robertson sidelined for the entire game with a concussion. He was hurt in the previous Saturday’s 29-22 second-round playoff win over Liberty, but had passed all of his medical protocols during the week and practiced Friday in anticipation of starting against Sam Houston State.
But Robertson had a mostly sleepless night on Friday and woke up on Saturday with a headache.
After Villanova’s normal pre-game Mass on sturdy morning, Robertson approached the coaching staff and said he needed to talk.
“Coach, I don’t think I can go,” Robertson said to Talley.
It was a stunning development for the Wildcats.
“He’s had a concussion before and he just didn’t feel right,” Talley said of the 10:30 a.m. meeting. “He thought he would be hurting the team by trying to play.”
So into the brink stepped senior and former Villanova starter Polony, who was effective, hitting 13-of-24 passes for 228 yards — including a 54-yard touchdown strike to Poppy Livers — and rushing 13 times for 87 yards and two scores.
With Polony at the helm, Villanova piled up 514 yards of total offense and didn’t commit a turnover.
“I’ve coached against Polony before,” said SHSU coach K.C. Keeler. “I played against his dad. He started one season for them. I knew how good he was.”
Keeler said he found out Robertson was out when he and his coaching staff looked at the Villanova depth chart right before the game.
But Sam Houston State stayed in the contest with some strong quarterback play of its own.
Athletic sophomore Jared Johnson (22-of-27 passing for 303 yards and three TDs, 12 rushes for 32 yards) burned the Wildcat secondary repeatedly finding LaDarius Brown (six catches, 174 yards, two TDs) for big plays against Villanova’s mismatched cornerbacks.
Johnson turned in that performance despite spending much of the week in bed with the flu.
The Bearkats churned out 454 yards of its own against a normally stout Villanova defense.
The lead changed hands five times and was tied once.
Villanova seemed poised to take the lead one final time, or at least tie the game again the final seconds.
Wildcat fans went crazy when Polony hit Livers for 32 yards on a final drive that started at the Villanova 25 with four minutes left. Livers skirted the sidelines and broke free for what looked momentarily like a 71-yard scoring play, but he was called out of bounds at the SHSU 39.
Kevin Monangai (27 carries, 166 yards, one touchdown rushing) earned another first down with a four-yard rush to the 26, but that was as close as the Wildcats would get to the end zone.
A sack of Polony by Mouf Adebo and two incomplete passes left Talley with a critical decision.
Leave his offense out on the field for a fourth and 13 play, or call on Gough to save the Wildcats’ season of promise.
“If I had Robertson available, I would have gone for it,” Talley admitted.
Gough, who had hit a career-long, 46-yard field goal on the final play of the first half had a chance to send the game into overtime with another 46 yarder at the game’s end.
His kick appeared good, but tailed to the left and went wide. But as the kick was leaving Gough’s foot, one of the officials blew the play dead.
Inexplicably, Villanova was whistled for delay of game — the Wildcats’ 12 penalty for 88 yards.
Gough would get another chance, but this time from 51 yards out.
His second kick was low, but long enough. It soared near the left upright and then veered elf, about a foot outside of the post.
It was just the second Villanova Stadium playoff loss ever for the Wildcats, whose last home playoff loss was a 17-14 setback to eventual national champion Youngstown State in 1997 — a year where VU was previously unbeaten and the top seed in the playoffs.
Sam Houston State is the surprise team in the FCS Final Four, a team that struggled to a 1-3 start and losing to a non-Division I program (Colorado State-Pueblo) before winning nine of its past 10 games, including seven in a row.
One more victory would put the Bearkats in the FCS championship game for the third time in four years as they try to earn their first national title.