Dec. 4, 2010
NACOGDOCHES, Texas - In the second round of the Division I Football Championship on Saturday afternoon, No. 10 Villanova (8-4) dominated the final three quarters of the game and advanced to the quarterfinals with a 54-24 victory over No. 3 Stephen F. Austin (9-3) at Homer Bryce Stadium in a remarkable come-from-behind effort. A 14-point deficit after the opening quarter was quickly shaken off by the defending national champions, as the Wildcats scored 47 of the game's final 50 points to set up a meeting with top-seeded Appalachian State in Boone, N.C. next weekend.
Senior quarterback Chris Whitney (Warminster, Pa.) threw for a career-high four touchdowns, junior wide receiver Norman White (Hammonton, N.J.) caught a career-high three touchdown passes and Villanova turned the game around with a huge second quarter in their first-ever playoff win in a true road game. The Wildcats trailed 21-7 at the end of the first quarter but rallied back to go into halftime with a 34-24 advantage before completely shutting down the Lumberjacks in the second half.
Villanova settled in offensively and fired on all cylinders with senior wide receiver Matt Szczur (Erma, N.J.) playing at full strength for the first time since late September and also came up with one big defensive play after another, forcing Stephen F. Austin into an uncharacteristic six turnovers. Senior linebacker Marquis Kirkland (Syracuse, N.Y.) had both an interception and a fumble recovery while also making eight tackles to epitomize the play of the entire defense for the larger portion of the game.
The second quarter started with the Wildcats continuing a drive from the opening period but Villanova was forced to punt from their own 23-yard line. Junior Dominic Scarnecchia (Youngstown, Ohio) drilled a 47-yard punt, the Lumberjacks fumbled the return and freshman Craig James (Mays Landing, N.J.) recovered the ball at Stephen F. Austin's 29-yard line. The ensuing Wildcats possession culminated with an 11-yard touchdown pass from Whitney to White which pulled Villanova back to within one possession at 21-14 with 10:59 left in the second quarter.
A field goal by the Lumberjacks at the 7:46 mark of the period restored a double digit lead at 24-14 but then the Wildcats surge really kicked into full gear. Sophomore kicker Mark Hamilton (Gaithersburg, Md.) kicked a 37-yard field goal to give Villanova reason for optimism on special teams and the Wildcats never looked back.
Senior defensive back John Dempsey (Secane, Pa.) intercepted a pass to give Villanova great field position inside the red zone and the team eventually turned a fourth-and-9 situation from the 17-yard line into a game-tying touchdown on a pass from junior Marlon Calbi (Montclair, N.J.) to White via a faked field goal attempt.
Next, the Wildcats worked just as efficiently as their opponents had earlier in the game to score 10 points in the final 34 seconds before the intermission. Whitney hit sophomore wide receiver Mikey Reynolds (Moorestown, N.J.) for a four-yard touchdown strike with 34 seconds left and Hamilton kicked a 38-yard field goal as time expired to send Villanova into the locker room with a double-digit lead thanks to a 24-point second quarter turnaround.
The second half was simply more of the same and by the time all was said and done the Wildcats had scored at least 54 points for the third time in their last seven playoff games. White established a school record for the most touchdowns by a wide receiver in a postseason contest and Villanova dispelled its 0-6 road record in playoff games by eliminating the Southland Conference champions.
Whitney was 21-of-30 through the air for 222 yards and also ran the ball 13 times for 49 yards as the Wildcats eclipsed 200 yard passing and rushing in the same game for the second time this season. White had six receptions for 69 yards and the three scores, although just as crucial to the team's offense was having Szczur back in top form.
In his second game back after missing the previous seven contests, Szczur caught a career-high 11 passes for 128 yards and a touchdown while also running the ball nine times for 68 yards. Senior running backs Aaron Ball (Los Angeles, Calif.) and Angelo Babbaro (Canfield, Ohio) added 63 yards and 47 yards rushing, respectively, to bolster the team's ground attack.
"We knew it would be a shootout today but we were just here to play football and get after the other team," Szczur said. "It was a terrible feeling to miss seven games and being out there today was a huge boost. It felt great to be on the field helping my teammates out."
The type of dominance exerted by Villanova for most of the game was not evident coming out of the gates, as the quick pace of play by host Stephen F. Austin in 70-degree weather put the Wildcats defense on their heels. Lumberjacks quarterback Jeremy Moses repeatedly got Stephen F. Austin into good scoring position with one passing play after another and true freshman running back Keith Lawson made three separate one-yard scoring runs in the first quarter to finish those drives.
At one point in the first period, Moses was 8-of-8 for 92 yards through the air as the Lumberjacks executed their offense the way they wanted. Following their first score of the game, Villanova tied the score at 7-7 on a 16-yard pass from Whitney to White but Stephen F. Austin scored again to go ahead 14-7 and then recovered a Wildcats fumble on the ensuing kickoff to eventually score again and go up 21-7 with 1:34 left in the opening period.
Hamilton's third field goal of the game made the score 37-24 midway through the third quarter and, at least relative to the scoreboard, the game was still in reach of the Lumberjacks. By that point, however, the points seemed to be coming in bunches for Villanova. In the fourth quarter, Whitney and Szczur connected for a 51-yard touchdown, Hamilton kicked yet another field goal and redshirt freshman Brennan Erbeznik (Santa Monica, Calif.) fell on a fumble in the end zone to close out the scoring.
On the defensive side of the ball, seven different players made at least eight tackles for the Wildcats, including sophomore defensive back Ronnie Akins (Lansdale, Pa.) with a team-high 12 stops (five solo, seven assisted). Sophomore Eric Loper (Sicklerville, N.J.) made 11 tackles and senior linebacker Anthony Johnson (Atlanta, Ga.) registered 10 tackles while also forcing two of the three fumbles by the Lumberjacks. Kirkland, James and senior linebacker Jacob Wade (Silver Spring, Md.) each recovered fumbles, while Kirkland, Dempsey and redshirt freshman Rakim Cox (San Diego, Calif.) all had interceptions.
Moses finished the day 33-of-51 for 340 yards but his three interceptions nearly matched his entire season total (four) entering the game. Four different players tallied at least five catches for Stephen F. Austin.
An announcement will be made on Sunday regarding the Wildcats quarterfinal matchup at Appalachian State. That game will either be played on Friday night or on Saturday afternoon in Boone, N.C.
NOTES: The 14-point deficit overcome by Villanova was its biggest comeback in a winning effort since a 28-27 victory at Delaware on November 18, 2006 ... The Wildcats trailed that contest 20-0 before mounting a rally ... Villanova had converted just three field goals in 10 attempts all season before Hamilton went 4-for-4 today ... It was the most field goals in a game for the Wildcats since a 26-20 win over Richmond on Sept. 27, 2008 ... Villanova went 4-for-4 in that game as well ... Hamilton had 18 points today on the four field goals and 6-of-6 accuracy on extra points ... The Wildcats are now 9-7 all-time in the FCS playoffs ... Villanova has never faced Appalachian State.