SYRACUSE, N.Y. - In a gritty performance against an FBS and ACC opponent No. 12 Villanova (0-1) was stifled on a two-point conversion attempt in the second overtime and fell by a final score of 27-26 to Syracuse (1-0) in front of an announced crowd of 41,189 at the Carrier Dome on Friday night. A game that featured the Wildcats second punt return for a touchdown in the last 30 years had no shortage of gut-wrenching momentum swings in the fourth quarter and the overtime periods before the host Orange pulled out a victory by the narrowest of margins.
Junior quarterback John Robertson (Paramus, N.J.), who had 314 yards of total offense on the night, completed consecutive passes to junior running back Gary Underwood (Cincinnati, Ohio) for a combined 20 yards on the final two offensive plays of the game. After an 11-yard completion on 3rd-and-5 from the 20-yard line, Robertson connected again and Underwood made a one-handed catch in the end zone for a nine-yard touchdown which pulled Villanova to within 27-26. Syracuse had the ball first in the second extra period and scored on a one-yard touchdown pass from punter Riley Dixon to tight end Kendall Moore on a fake field goal.
In the two overtime periods the Orange ran nine goal-to-go plays, including seven from inside the five-yard line, and each time the Wildcats came up with potentially game-saving stops to thwart a touchdown. It was after those nine plays that Syracuse opted for the trick play, and Dixon's touchdown pass put the Orange in front, 27-20. Villanova tried for heroics of its own after answering with a touchdown of its own. Robertson was stuffed on a quarterback sneak to end the game.
Senior kicker Chris Gough (Winslow, N.J.) kicked a 24-yard field goal to give the Wildcats a 20-17 lead in the first overtime period and the Orange answered with a 22-yard make by Ryan Norton after coming up inches short of a touchdown. Senior nose guard Pat Williams (Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.) stopped running back Adonis Ameen-Moore on first-and-goal from the one and junior Jordan Hunter (Burlington Twp., N.J.) came up with an equally big stop for a three-yard loss on second down.
The late-game excitement really started late in the third quarter when senior Poppy Livers (Seaside, Calif.) returned a punt 67 yards for a touchdown to cut into the Syracuse lead and get Villanova to within three points at 17-14 with 2:34 remaining in the third period. Livers also had a 66-yard punt return touchdown at Georgia State two years ago and is the only Wildcats player in the 30-year Andy Talley era to achieve the feat. His big return marked the first points for Villanova since early in the second quarter.
On their ensuing possession after Livers' touchdown the Orange went three-and-out and the Wildcats then ate up more than nine minutes of clock on a 19-play, 80-yard drive which culminated with Gough kicking a game-tying 25-yard field goal with 7:14 to play in the fourth quarter. Syracuse went three-and-out again on its next possession and Villanova held the ball for nearly all of what was left in regulation. Gough had a 25-yard field goal attempt to win the game with 12 seconds to play but the kick was wide right.
Robertson finished the game with 115 rushing yards on a career-high 34 carries and he also went 16-of-27 through the air for 199 yards and a touchdown. During the game he passed Vince Thompson (1975-78) and moved into third place in school history in rushing yards. Robertson has now rushed for 2,542 yards in his career and he also tallied his 11th career 100-yard rushing game. That is tied with Thompson for the second-most in school history.
Senior running back Kevin Monangai (Roseland, N.J.) ran for 46 yards and a touchdown on 12 carries. His five-yard scoring run with 10:17 left in the second quarter got the Wildcats on the scoreboard and tied the game at 7-7. Livers had a team-high five receptions for 58 yards and finished with 138 all-purpose yards thanks to two punt returns totaling 80 yards, including the 67-yard return for a score.
A terrific defensive effort by Villanova was led by junior linebacker Don Cherry (Trumbull, Conn.), who had a team-high nine tackles and made two tackles for loss. During regulation the Wildcats held the ball for more than 37 minutes and Villanova finished the game with 87 offensive plays compared to 69 for the Orange.
Syracuse starting quarterback Terrel Hunt was ejected from the game after being whistled for throwing a punch in the second quarter. He had been 10-of-17 for 94 yards and had also run for 25 yards on three carries. His replacement, Austin Wilson, finished the game 11-of-17 for 89 yards.
A 38-yard field goal by Norton with 6:49 left in the second quarter sent the Orange into the locker rooms with a 10-7 lead at the intermission. Ameen-Moore scored on a two-yard run to cap a 13-play, 83-yard drive on the opening possession of the second half as Syracuse pushed its lead to two possessions at 17-7.
Prince-Tyson Gulley opened the scoring with a 65-yard touchdown run midway through the first quarter to open the scoring. On the first Orange possession of the game the Wildcats had forced Syracuse to punt on 4th-and-4 from its own 10-yard line but a penalty for roughing the kicker was assessed against Villanova and resulted in an Orange first down. Early in the game penalties were a storyline for both teams and the Wildcats wound up being whistled for 11 penalties totaling 93 yards. Both of those totals were higher than in any of the 11 contests Villanova played in last season.
The contest was the first overtime affair for the Wildcats since a 28-21 win over Delaware on November 20, 2010. Villanova is 10-5 in overtime games during Talley's coaching tenure and had not lost since a four-overtime loss at Massachusetts (32-24) on October 13, 2007.
Since restoring football at the FCS level in 1985, the Wildcats are 3-16 against FBS opponents. The only previous contest to go to overtime among those 19 was a 23-20 victory in double overtime against Temple on September 6, 2003.
Villanova returns to action next Saturday for its home opener against Fordham. Kickoff on September 6 between the Wildcats and the Rams is scheduled for 3:30 p.m. and the game will air live on the American Sports Network (ASN) in the Philadelphia Area.