CAN YOU HEAR the choo-choo?
Last week, Villanova's football team was out for some revenge. And the Wildcats got it, convincingly, against New Hampshire, the only team they hadn't beaten this season.
Last night on the Main Line, they met up with another familiar opponent in the Football Championship Subdivision semifinals. Only this time, it was the visitor that owed them not one but an entire handful.
'Nova (13-1) beat William & Mary here on Oct. 3, by 11. It was the 'Cats' fifth consecutive win in the series. Make it a sixpack. Which means the Tribe (11-3) still hasn't won in this stadium since 2000.
But the latest streak-extender was by far the most significant. And historic.
'Nova's 14-13 victory sends the Wildcats into the title game, its first, next Friday night in Chattanooga, Tenn.
"Can you believe it? Villanova's going to play for the national championship," gushed coach Andy Talley, who has been the leader of this program ever since it returned at the FCS level in 1985. "It's actually hard to believe. That was a gutty win for us."
The 'Cats, who trailed, 10-0, at halftime, will now play the winner of this afternoon's Appalachian State (11-2) at Montana (13-0) scrum. They've never met either.
"It's unbelievable that we're finally here," said junior Matt Szczur, who had 154 all-purpose yards. "This was the team I was scared of. I knew how good they were. But we made enough big plays when we had to."
The 'Cats are now 7-1 at home in the postseason, having won their last six. And it was their 19th win in their last 20 home games, period. The only loss was to No. 1 James Madison, last season, on a Hail Mary pass on the last play.
The 'Cats didn't take the lead until 10 minutes, 57 seconds remained, on a 1-yard off-tackle run by quarterback Chris Whitney on fourth down after two previous sneaks from the same spot produced nothing. Nick Yako added the conversion. The TD was set up by a 16-yard pass from Whitney to Brandyn Harvey that originally was ruled out of bounds. Upon further review (one of many, but the lone overturn), the 'Cats ended up with a fresh set of downs at the 6.
Early in that drive, which began at the Tribe 48, Szczur gained 9 yards on a reverse off a fake punt - on fourth-and-8.
"We let a real good team hang around, and that forced me to make some calls," Talley said. "We needed a second half like no other."
William & Mary would get the ball two more times. It wouldn't get any more first downs.
'Nova got the ball at the Tribe 47 with 5:41 showing. The Tribe never got it back. 'Nova went for it on fourth-and-a-short-1 from the 14 with a little less than 3 minutes left. Gutty move. Whitney kept it on an option left and picked up 2.
Three snaps later, the train noise got way louder.
"I didn't want to go for a field goal in that situation and maybe have it get blocked," Talley said. "If they stop us and drive down and beat us on a field goal, so be it."
Now it's sheer conjecture.
Szczur got the 'Cats on the board when he took a direct snap and went off left tackle for 62 untouched yards with 9 minutes to go in the third quarter. It was his seventh touchdown in five playoff games, and made it a three-point game.
A 40-yard field goal 7 minutes later by William & Mary's Brian Pate, his second of the evening, had it back to 13-7.
"The captains got wristbands this year that said, 'Whatever it takes,' " Whitney said. "That's what we did."
The only time 'Nova had reached the semifinals, it lost by 11 at McNeese State. That was 7 years ago.
The only time William & Mary had made it this far, in 2004, it lost at home to eventual national champion James Madison.
Appalachian won the title in 2005, '06 and '07. Montana lost to another Colonial Athletic Association team, Richmond, in last year's final. It was the Grizzlies' third runner-up since 1996. They won it all in '95 and '01.
'Nova will try to become the fourth CAA team to go all the way in the last seven seasons.
This was the first time 'Nova hadn't scored in the opening 30 minutes since a come-from-behind win against Temple in the season opener.
On the third possession of the second quarter, the Tribe faced a third-and-9 from its 2, the third time in four possessions that it had started from just in front of the goal line. R.J. Archer then let one fly down the right sideline to Cameron Dohse, who had a step on cornerback Eric Loper. Dohse grabbed the ball in stride in front of the 'Nova bench near midfield and was gone for a 98-yard touchdown.
It was only the longest pass play in William & Mary history. By a full 11 yards.
It was the first time the 'Cats, who'd enjoyed much better field position to that point, had trailed in any game since its Nov. 7 victory at then-No. 1 Richmond, when they came from six down in the final minutes.
When the Tribe got it back, it moved to the 'Nova 25. A pass got it to the 4, but that was wiped out by a holding penalty. On the next snap, John Dempsey intercepted to set 'Nova up at the Tribe 49. But the 'Cats went three-and-out for the fourth time in the half. Their other two possessions netted one first down apiece, one coming on a 40-yard completion.
The Tribe proceeded to move 55 yards in 12 plays in a little more than 2 minutes, and Pate drilled a career-long 46-yard field goal as the clock hit all zeros.
Heading back to the locker room, the Tribe had a dozen more first downs and 187 more yards. The 'Cats had 25 rushing yards on 10 attempts. In the four previous games, they'd outgained their opponents on the ground by more than 1,000 yards.
But the 'Cats, who still haven't turned it over in the tournament, would have enough inside them. They needed every bit of it. Gutty indeed.