Villanova barely survives its first NCAA playoff test, beats Holy Cross, 21-16
There was nothing easy about Villanova's FCS playoff opener against Holy Cross.
Villanova may have gotten one of the national seeds that gave the Wildcats a bye into Friday’s 2021 NCAA FCS second-round playoff game, and they may have been hosts against Patriot League champion Holy Cross inside Villanova Stadium.
Didn’t mean anything came easy Friday night.
The 21-16 final score fully reflected the angst felt all night along the home sidelines. The No. 5 seed had its hands full all the way. Holy Cross got the ball with just under 4 minutes left, 80 yards to go. First down, a 27-yard pass completion. Maybe the play of the game came next for Villanova. Holy Cross went for the home run ball and almost put it over the wall. Ty Trinh, a redshirt frershman safety, may have saved the night, just getting there to break up a pass at the goal line.
Defense dominated first half
An Ethan Potter interception set up Villanova’s first score early in the second quarter. Holy Cross gained 48 of its 131 first-half yards on its first drive, but was stopped on fourth and one at Villanova’s 19-yard line.
On their first drive of the third quarter, the Crusaders went down the field and scored on a little trick play, a halfback lob by Jordan Fuller to tight end Sean Morris in the back of the end zone to cut Villanova’s lead to 14-7.
Villanova fans saw why Holy Cross quarterback Matthew Sluka was his team’s leading rusher for the season. The sophomore had some juke moves to go with some speed, so even when Villanova had him lined up, they didn’t always get him.
A key play … but for which team?
After Holy Cross scored, there appeared to be a Villanova fumble on the kickoff … not so fast. Ruling on the field, runner was down. But the replay was clear … Villanova’s defense ran on the field before there was an official announcement. The ball was clearly out. Holy Cross had recovered at Villanova’s 25-yard line. Holy Cross turned it into a field goal, drawing within 14-10.
Another key play
Holy Cross scored with 6:22 left to get within 21-16. The Crusaders tried for a two-point conversion but Jared Nelson intercepted to foil the attempt to get within a field goal.
That’s the way to make it up
That kick-return fumble came from the hands of Villanova’s TD Ayo-Durojaiye. After the Holy Cross field goal, Ayo-Durojaiye got the three points back and then some. His 55-yard kick return set up a Villanova TD three plays later. Daniel Smith performed a magician act to get out of trouble and run 19 yards. Then tailback Jalen Jackson ran in from 14 yards out, pushing Villanova back ahead 21-10.
Screen plays worked
Both of Villanova’s first-half scoring drives featured screen plays to tailbacks on the left flat where first Jackson and then Justin Covington had big running room and made quick use of it. Jackson’s 30-yard catch got the Wildcats down to the 3-yard line before Covington scored from two yards out. Covington’s 20-yarder pushed Villanova deep into Holy Cross territory later in the half, setting up another score.
QB turned receiver
Qadir Ismail, a 6-foot-6 former backup quarterback with a familiar last name, was on the receiving end of the nicest Villanova pass play of the first half. The 24-yard exception on a third-and-14 in the last 90 seconds of the first half had to be thrown into a small window by Smith, with Ismail making a professional catch in traffic. Covington scored the next play from seven yards out for a 14-0 lead.
Villanova linebacker Forrest Rhyne specializes in such things, and made some more. Among his 10 first-half tackles were a couple of sacks, and part of that fourth-and-one point-saver. By the end, Rhyne was up to 21 tackles.
Villanova faces the winner of Saturday night’s South Dakota State at Sacramento State game. If South Dakota State wins, Villanova will host the game next weekend. A Sacramento State win means Villanova travels out there for the national quarterfinal matchup.