Snow Problem: No. 2 ‘Cats avenge only loss, advance to semifinals

Nathan McGann

After junior running back Angelo Babbaro carried for 59 yards and another Villanova touchdown late in the third quarter, senior receiver Brandyn Harvey and junior wideout Matt Szczur celebrated on the sidelines with a quick snowball fight. That fight proved more competitive than the game itself.

Looking to avenge its only loss of the season, the No. 2 Villanova Wildcats dismantled their CAA counterpart New Hampshire 46-7 in the quarterfinals of the FCS playoffs. The Main Line forever has its own version of a “Snow Bowl.”

While New Hampshire Head Coach Sean McDonnell insisted after the game that the snow wasn’t a factor since both teams were forced to brave the elements, the teams’ respective performances said otherwise. New Hampshire managed only 84 yards of total offense compared to Villanova’s 387 yards, 343 of which came from the Wildcats vaunted rushing attack. UNH didn’t record a first down until there were a little over six minutes left in the third quarter, and they finished the third quarter with minus 33 yards of total offense.

“That was the first time I’ve felt overmatched on the football field,” McDonnell said.

The weather wasn’t the only reason New Hampshire never found a rhythm on offense. Villanova’s defense, which was exposed slightly in the win over Holy Cross, stepped up with a record-setting performance. The defense held UNH to minus 66 rushing yards, breaking the previous team record of minus 22 yards. No New Hampshire player recorded positive yardage on the ground.

“We put pressure on their quarterback all day,” Head Coach Andy Talley said. “It was probably as good as we could play.”

It didn’t take long for Villanova to set the tone for the match. After winning the coin toss and electing to defer, Villanova forced a fumble on the first play from scrimmage. Junior safety John Dempsey recovered the loose ball at the 4-yard line and carried it in for his first career touchdown. The Wildcats took a 7-0 lead only 15 seconds into the contest.

“I was in the right place at the right time,” Dempsey said. “It was a huge momentum factor.”

Villanova continued to build on its lead early and often, capitalizing on UNH’s many three-and-out possessions. After a field goal by freshman kicker Nick Yako, ‘Nova scored two consecutive rushing touchdowns, the first a 25-yarder by Babbaro and the second by junior quarterback Chris Whitney at the 1-yard line, to build the lead to 24-0 going into the half.

Babbaro, who missed the regular season matchup with New Hampshire due to injury, exploded on Saturday in what was his best game as a Wildcat. The tailback from Ohio rushed for a game-high 148 yards on 13 carries, punching it into the end zone twice.

The second half started much the same way as the first. Villanova, looking to gain an advantage from the wind direction, elected to defer again. After a couple of traded possessions, ‘Nova’s defense, which sacked New Hampshire’s quarterbacks six times, broke free for a safety when senior defensive lineman Tim Kukucka brought down R.J. Toman in his own end zone.

Villanova added two more touchdowns in the third quarter, a 29-yard carry by Szczur and Babbaro’s 59-yarder. The two possessions only took 39 and 49 seconds respectively. UNH tacked on its only score of the afternoon when backup quarterback Kevin Decker, who came in for the benched Toman in the fourth quarter, threw a touchdown pass to the corner of the end zone, a small victory for the embattled Wildcats.

“I thought we handled the conditions a little better than they did,” Talley said. “It looked like we were playing on a sunny day.”

The win was Villanova’s twelfth of the season, tying a team record, and the team has advanced to the semifinals of the FCS playoffs for only the second time in school history.