HARRISONBURG, Va. - Facing the fourth-ranked rushing offense in the nation in James Madison, Villanova coach Andy Talley knew that his offense had to keep the ball to keep his defense fresh and the Wildcats' season alive.
That didn't happen yesterday, as the Wildcats fell to James Madison, 31-27, in the Football Championship Subdivision (Division I-AA) quarterfinals at Bridgeforth Stadium.
"Offensively, I don't think we had our best day today - we needed to stay on pace," Talley said. "We put a lot of pressure on our defense today. I think, offensively, you can't let the other team have the ball for 37 minutes."
The problem was JMU quarterback Rodney Landers had the football for a lot of those minutes. Landers threw for 157 yards and three touchdowns and ran for 143 yards and the game-winning 1-yard score. On that clinching drive, JMU chewed up 5 minutes and 16 seconds on 11 plays, leaving Villanova with only 1:38 to mount a comeback.
That hope ended when Villanova quarterback Chris Whitney was intercepted at midfield by safety Marcus Haywood with 40 seconds remaining, allowing James Madison to run out the clock.
Villanova finished 10-3, with two of those losses coming against JMU (12-1). The Dukes won the previous game, 23-19, on a Hail Mary pass. JMU will play Montana on Saturday in one of the Division I-AA semifinals.
Villanova got the short end of two controversial calls. Wildcats defensive back Ross Vetrone appeared to intercept a jump-ball pass from Landers to tight end Mike Caussin in the end zone, but officials ruled that Caussin had possession. Receiver Phil Atkinson fumbled to set up JMU's second touchdown, but replays appeared to show that Atkinson was down before he fumbled, and that a Dukes player pulled his face mask in the process.
However, Villanova gave JMU solid field position to start that final drive when tight end Stephen Pimm was flagged for removing his helmet after he put his team ahead by 27-24 - the only Villanova lead of the game - on a 13-yard TD catch from Matt Szczur with 6:54 left.
Landers' biggest run of the day was just 16 yards, but on many runs he seemed to shed one or two Villanova tacklers.
"He's probably the best quarterback at our level, and he's very difficult to stop," Talley said. Landers is a finalist for the Walter Payton Award, which goes to the top player in Division I-AA.
On the other side of the ball, Villanova had difficulty running against the Dukes' 4-3 scheme. In the previous meeting, JMU used its standard 3-4 defense.
"We got more people in the box in the 4-3 against them," James Madison coach Mickey Mathews said. "They had 80 yards rushing. Last time they had 230, so it's obvious we tackled better."
Villanova tailback Andrew Ball, who came in averaging 88 yards, finished the game with 29 yards on nine carries.
The loss ends Villanova's season, but Talley doesn't want his team to focus on the final defeat.
"It's one and done," he said of the playoffs. "When you lose, everything comes to a screeching halt and you forget that you had a 10-win season. I don't want our players to forget that."