WE'LL NEVER know what might have happened, had Villanova's John Robertson been able to play in Saturday's FCS quarterfinal against visiting Sam Houston State.
The redshirt junior quarterback - who already is the program's all-time leader in total offense and tonight has a very good chance of winning the Walter Payton Award as the top player at the FCS level - was a late scratch due to a concussion suffered late in last week's second-round home win over Liberty.
Senior Chris Polony - who actually beat out Robertson for the job in both 2011 and '12 - got his first start in 2 years and played about as well as he could. But Robertson is the Payton favorite for a reason.
The Wildcats (11-3) were eliminated, 34-31, when Chris Gough's 51-yard field-goal attempt - following a 5-yard delay-of-game penalty - with 32 seconds to go went just wide left. Gough, who was 3-for-6 with a long of 42 going into the game, had hit from 46 at the same end of the field (with the wind) to close the first half.
So Sam Houston (11-4), in its first season with former Rowan and Delaware coach K.C. Keeler, will play at three-time defending champ North Dakota State (13-1) in this weekend's semifinals. The Bearkats, who started 1-3, lost to NDS in the 2012 and '13 finals. NDS beat Coastal Carolina (12-2), 39-32, the second straight time it trailed in Fargo in the fourth quarter. The Bison has won 37 of its last 38.
The Wildcats' other losses had been by one point. In the opener at Syracuse, Gough missed a 25-yarder at the end of regulation (after a 59-yard drive) and they failed to convert a two-pointer in the second overtime. At Richmond on Nov. 1, they might have gone into OT had freshman Steve Weyler not missed a third-quarter PAT.
Twice, at William & Mary in mid-October and at Delaware in the regular-season finale, Robertson led them on long drives that resulted in last-minute, game-winning touchdowns. Against Delaware, they had to convert two fourth downs, including a fourth-and-15 from their 27. And against Liberty, the Wildcats scored 15 unanswered fourth-quarter points, with the winning drive (18 straight runs) covering 84 yards in 7:11.
Logic suggests Robertson may be worth three points. Not that it matters now.
After Villanova had taken its first lead since 13-7, Sam Houston went ahead for keeps with just over 4 minutes left on a 75-yard, 10-play TD drive that took 3:12. The Wildcats then moved 41 yards in 10 plays, although they could have managed the clock better. They had a first down at the 26, but three plays (two incompletions sandwiched around a sack) lost 3 yards before Gough was sent out.
"I think we played as hard as we could," coach Andy Talley said. "Chris was great. He gave us a chance to win. The guys worked hard to try to support him. They played a little better than us.
"We didn't handle the pressure as well as we could have, at some critical points. A championship team has to step up. It came down to a three-pointer at the end. That's been the story of our season."
Polony was 13-for-24 for 228 yards, with a 54-yard TD pass to Poppy Livers. He also carried 13 times for 87 yards, including a 36-yard score. Senior Kevin Monangai rushed for 166, including a 58-yard TD, on 27 carries.
Sam Houston's Jared Johnson, who had been battling the flu, was 22-for-27 for 303 and three TDs. The Bearkats, whose first TD was set up by a blocked punt, led 17-16 at halftime.
Villanova had 60 more yards on five fewer snaps. There were no turnovers.
Polony had taken all the reps last week. But Robertson passed the medical protocol and practiced on Friday. So it looked as if he'd be ready. Then he woke up Saturday with a headache and said he just didn't feel well enough to go. He's had concussions before, both in high school and college. The last one was 2 years ago, although that didn't force him to miss the next game.
"This was just a game," Talley said. "It's his head. I think that's in the hands of God."
And tonight in Philadelphia, the Hatboro-based Sports Network will likely present Robertson - the 2012 Jerry Rice winner (FCS Freshman of the Year) - with its top honor. He'd no doubt swap that for a trip to Fargo. But that's not how it works. There's always next year, although the Wildcats do lose a gritty bunch of seniors.
This was their second home loss in the playoffs in 10 games. The other was also in the quarters, and also by three, in 1997 to Youngstown State (37-34) when they were ranked No. 1 and couldn't hold a 21-0 lead. They'd won seven in a row since then.
Keeler is now 5-7 against Talley. He'd lost six of the previous seven. The win was in 2011, when Polony was also the QB on a 2-9 team. That was a different Polony.
"This team overachieved," Talley insisted. "I have no complaints. This is as good a group as I've ever had. It's my [11th] playoff. Only one time  did we make it all the way through. Someone's always going to be broken-hearted. It's really hard. That was about as somber a locker room as it gets. We could have easily won. But we had a great season. I'd say we're pretty blessed."
Still, the what-if part of it figures to linger a while.