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Villanova hosts Sam Houston State in quarterfinals

The 11-2 Wildcats have a pattern of rallying from deficits to win this season.

Villanova quarterback John Robertson is a finalist for the Walter Payton Award. (Michael Bryant/Staff Photographer)
Villanova quarterback John Robertson is a finalist for the Walter Payton Award. (Michael Bryant/Staff Photographer)Read more

VILLANOVA trailed by 10 in the third quarter of its opener at Syracuse. The Wildcats would lose in double overtime, but not before they drove 59 yards in 13 plays at the end of regulation, only to miss a 25-yard field goal from straightaway.

Two games later, they trailed by 10 at home against James Madison, which has made the playoffs. They won by 18.

In mid-October, they had to go 69 yards in seven plays to score a winning touchdown with 52 seconds left at William & Mary, which was ranked at the time.

In the regular-season finale, they went 68 yards in 10 plays to score the winning TD with 23 seconds to go.

And in last week's second round of the FCS playoffs, they were down, 13-0, against Liberty at home and still trailed by seven after three quarters. They won on a late TD. The decisive drive was 84 yards in 18 plays (all runs) in just over 7 minutes.

"If anything, we've been a second-half team," said senior defensive back Joe Sarnese, who is second on the team with four interceptions and third with 74 tackles. "We'd like to be a four-quarter team. Our coaches stress that every week. We do our best to do that, but sometimes it seems like until we sit down at halftime . . . Nobody gets stressed. We just come out on fire.

"For some reason, that's the way it's been. We're not worried about it. We don't want to count on that, but we have that cockiness to know we're not afraid."

Tomorrow afternoon, Villanova (11-2) hosts Sam Houston State (10-4) in the FCS quarterfinals. The Wildcats were supposed to be here. Their opponent, maybe not so much. That doesn't matter now. The Bearkats - and first-year coach K.C. Keeler, who certainly was no stranger to postseason success at Division III Rowan and then Delaware - haven't lost in almost 2 months. Last week, they won at higher-seeded Jacksonville State (10-2), where they trailed by two after 45 minutes. In the opening round, they trailed Southeastern Louisiana (9-4) in the fourth quarter at home, in Huntsville, Texas.

So maybe at this point, they're feeling a little whatever, too.

The Wildcats are defined by their offense. Junior quarterback John Robertson is the Walter Payton Award favorite for a reason. Yet against Liberty, it was the defense that mostly kept them in it by coming up with two goal-line stands that forced the Flames to settle for field goals. If those don't happen, the Wildcats might have been playing from too far behind.

"A lot of people like to talk about certain superstars," Sarnese said. "We're happy we don't have one specific guy, or headliner. We like to be recognized as a group.

"We know in our hearts what we can do."

In 2011, the Wildcats went 2-9. After going to the semifinals in 2010 as the defending champions. That's what these seniors were recruited to do too. And nobody's more aware of that than them.

"We had a bunch of [freshmen] starting, and, if not, [they were] getting on the field," Sarnese recalled. "We knew we'd be really good one day. We got together and we said, 'We're going to win a national championship before we leave here.' I'll never forget it. It sounds funny, but that's really helped. And now we're not far off. We'll see what we can do with it.

"It's difficult to think that every game could be my last ever. I try not to think about it. I'm confident that it won't be. I think the team is confident."

The Wildcats are 8-1 at home in the playoffs, having won their last seven going back to the second round in 1997, when they blew a 21-0 lead against eventual champ Youngstown State.

"We have a motto, 'We don't lose at home,' " Sarnese noted. "We're comfortable here. It kind of gives you that extra energy.

"It means everything. Being able to have that same routine, we're thankful for that."

Even when it takes a while for them to really kick in.

Extra points

The winner will get either Coastal Carolina (12-1) or three-time defending champ North Dakota State (12-1), which needed a late TD to avoid getting beat at home last week by South Dakota State (9-5). Coastal lost last year in the quarters at NDS, 48-14, but the Chanticleers are 7-0 on the road this year.