Villanova senior Chris Whitney knows how to play quarterback only one way - as if he were a linebacker and it's the last game of his life.

Which might explain why, even though he's played hurt all season, he's the guy who won't go down, even when several defenders have a hold of him. He just can't help himself. It's part of his DNA.

"I can't change the way I do it," said the 6-2, 230-pound product of St. Joseph's Prep. "In high school, I played both sides of the ball. I'd be feeling sore Monday through Thursday. That's just me.

"Before our Delaware game [to finish the regular season], a bunch of seniors got up and talked. I talked about my dad, who passed away when I was a freshman in high school. He had lung cancer. I talked about the way I play, kind of like him. When he was passing away, he was able to say goodbye to just about everybody. That's how I want to base my game.

"I refuse to be taken down. I refuse to be beaten. Each week, whatever it takes for us to win. Whether that's me doing a lot, or just helping everyone else out."

Whitney was an intregal part of the Wildcats' Football Championship Series national-title run a year ago. This season, he's been hampered by a turf toe, soreness in both knees and disk problems in his back. Since no backup is really ready, he has to stay on the field. And do-everything Matt Szczur, who takes direct snaps from the shotgun, missed seven games with an ankle injury.

Still, Whitney has completed 179 of 275 passes for 2,040 yards, with 21 touchdowns and five interceptions. He's also carried 147 times for 551 yards, with 10 scores.

The Wildcats (8-4), who had to win at No. 1 Delaware to get in the playoffs, are in the quarterfinals after winning, 54-24, last week at third-ranked Stephen F. Austin. Tomorrow, they play at Appalachian State (10-2), the top seed in the tournament.

With Whitney, who threw for four TDs at SFA, Villanova is 6-1 in the postseason. For a program that's had a procession of big-time QBs, he fits right in. And as a warrior, he might stand alone.

"He never has looked the part," coach Andy Talley said. "But the production from him, and the toughess . . . He came to Villanova with the right style for this offense. He fits in very nicely. He's the signature, a hard-nosed running football team that has a pretty good passing attack when it has to.

"Fortunately, he's held up [physically]. Probably a lesser kid wouldn't be playing a whole lot right now. But he's managed to play through everything he's had. He's our horse. If you look at our offense, I think he's the personality, for sure. You know, it's like here we come. That's what he brings."

For the third straight game, Whitney knows it could be the last one of his collegiate career. Not that he's ever needed any more reason to throw his body around.

"I think with any sport, at any school, once you win the national championship, anything less the next year is going to be a disappointment," he said. "We're excited to still be playing. When you look at the games we've lost, we kind of beat ourselves. We knew if we got in the playoffs, everybody starts even again. The only thing the records mean now is home field. Other than that, we feel we have as good a shot as anybody.

"There's only eight teams left. None of us have ever been to Appalachian State. We've always seen them on TV. They've got a lot of notoriety. We just want the chance to play them. At this point, every team's going to be confident. If not, then something's wrong. I think it helps that we've been there. And they've been there [titles in 2005, '06 and '07]. We know what it feels like. When we won last week, you didn't see any of us running on the field and cheering. It's one game. You can't get ahead of yourself. I think we did that 2 years ago and it cost us [in the quarterfinals at James Madison].

"The rankings don't mean anything right now. The only rankings that matter is at the end."

Repeating isn't easy. Especially when you have to do it on the road. But the Wildcats have the pedigree. And, finally, a fairly healthy Szczur. So why not?

"We're starting to look like, and peak like, the team that was picked to win our league [Colonial Athletic Association]," Talley said. "So I think we're a bad draw for a lot of people. I think we're a lot better than our record.

"We think we can beat anybody, we really do."

Even if their fearless leader hardly adheres to any conventional mold. *