Villanova's football team won 10 games this season, the fourth time that has happened in the Andy Talley era. His Wildcats made it to the quarterfinals of the Division I-AA playoffs for the third time. They only lost twice to I-AA opponents. Both were against top-ranked James Madison, by four points each.
Their season ended Saturday, at JMU, 31-27. Rodney Landers, a Payton Award finalist, scored the winning touchdown on a short run with 1 minute, 38 seconds to go. He also threw for three TDs. On Oct. 25, the visiting Dukes won on a 35-yard tipped pass on the last snap.
The Wildcats (10-3) came back from 14-0 to tie things at the half. Then they rallied from 10 down after three periods to take a 27-24 lead with 6:54 left. Following a very debatable 15-yard penalty for excessive celebration that forced 'Nova to kick off from its 15, the Dukes (12-1) went 69 yards in nine plays. They converted a fourth-and-2 from the 'Nova 46. In the first meeting, they had converted a fourth-and-10 on their winning drive.
Because the Wildcats had missed a PAT following their third TD, they couldn't play for a tying field goal on their last possession. After making two first downs, a midfield interception (after the receiver slipped) made it official.
James Madison will host Montana (13-1) in one of this week's semifinals. Another Colonial Athletic Association team, Richmond (11-3), will be at Northern Iowa (12-2). Villanova beat Richmond at home in late September when the Spiders were on top of the polls. Richmond advanced with a 20-point win at three-time defending champ Appalachian State (11-3).
Villanova is now 0-6 on the road in the playoffs. Four losses were by a combined 14 points. Which doesn't even count that controversial 11-pointer at McNeese State (2002). Or a three-pointer at home to Youngstown State (1997).
"We played with great heart all year," Talley said yesterday. "That was the trademark of this team. The problem with the playoffs is, you have a great season but only one team doesn't go home hurting. There's a lot of ifs and buts. You just wonder when one of these is going to go our way.
"I don't like to think we're snakebit. I don't know. You have to be a little lucky, too. Even though we kind of played our 'C' game, we were still right there. That tells me we were good, but can still be better."
The Wildcats will return a lot, although they do lose some key ingredients, particularly on defense. They open the 2009 season against Temple.
"I walked into the [final] meeting today, and I had a big victory cigar lit," Talley continued. "I wanted them to know I was smoking it because we had a reason to be celebrating. I know we're not playing, but we accomplished a lot. I wanted them to know that. That's kind of where we are. It happened. What are you going to do? We were one of the best teams, all year. That's the deal.
"We played the No. 1 team three times. Give me a break. We have a lot to be thankful for. I'm really looking forward to next year. We'll see. But a tweak here or a tweak there, and we could have won . . .
"The frustrating thing's going to be watching [JMU or Richmond] play for a national title." *