Chance for revenge, spot in semifinals on the line for No. 2 ‘Nova against No. 10 UNH

Nathan McGann

A year ago, James Madison handed the Wildcats a crushing defeat on a last-second Hail Mary pass, and the two teams met again for an encore bout in the postseason where Villanova fell short on its attempt for revenge. The Wildcats hope history doesn’t repeat itself.

Villanova welcomes conference rival New Hampshire to Villanova Stadium on Saturday in the quarterfinals of the FCS playoffs. The first “Battle of the Wildcats” saw Villanova leave New Hampshire with a devastating 28-24 loss, the only blemish on its regular season.

In October, Villanova came out sluggish, finding itself down 22-7, but quickly rallied back in the third quarter. The comeback was capped off by a Matt Szczur 58-yard touchdown run giving the Wildcats their only lead, 24-22. However, the fourth quarter would belong to UNH as Villanova played very uncharacteristic football.

With the ball on New Hampshire’s own 11-yard line, Villanova failed to punch the ball into the end zone on a drive led by backup quarterback Antwon Young. Then, freshman kicker Nick Yako couldn’t make the easy chip shot, leaving the Wildcats with no points in the red zone.

New Hampshire’s field goal kicker, Tom Manning, fared slightly better, booting two field goals in the fourth quarter, including the game winner with just over four minutes remaining.

“I was hoping we would play another out-of-conference team because they wouldn’t know us,” Head Coach Andy Talley said. “But [New Hampshire] knows us very well. There won’t be any surprises. Hopefully we’ll do a little better job than we did the first time around. Now, we have the homefield advantage.”

Since the loss to New Hampshire, Villanova has been on a tear. In addition to winning six straight games, including its first round playoff matchup against a difficult Holy Cross team, the Wildcats had to travel on the road to James Madison, Richmond and Towson, allowing only 27 total points in those games. Richmond was the top-ranked team in the country at the time. The team capped off the regular season with a blow-out against rival Delaware at home.

New Hampshire is not unfamiliar with the playoff setting. This is the sixth straight postseason appearance for the Wildcats and their fifth trip to the quarterfinal round in those six appearances. Nevertheless, that’s where it tends to stop for UNH. New Hampshire has never advanced past the second round in the program’s history.

The two teams are very similar. Like Villanova, UNH boasts a formidable defense as well as an offense that can put points on the board in a hurry. Head Coach Sean McDonnell brings experience in his 11th season at the helm with credentials that could only be matched by Villanova’s head coach, Andy Talley.

New Hampshire is explosive on all sides of the ball, including special teams. They rank fourth in the country in kickoff return yardage, averaging just over 25 yards per return. Even more importantly, UNH is at the top of the all-important turnover margin in the CAA. The team has recorded 32 takeaways and only turned the ball over 17 times during the regular season. Their 21 interceptions are also the most in the conference.

Not to be outdone, the New Hampshire offense has been equally spectacular. Led by junior quarterback R.J. Toman, the Wildcats boast the top scoring offense in the CAA, averaging 33.9 points per game. That number places them ninth overall in the FCS. Toman has not had as great a season as he did as a sophomore a year ago, but his ability to move the ball downfield with his arm could challenge the Villanova secondary, which was exposed by Holy Cross’ devastating passing attack. Toman ranked second in total offense in the CAA behind only Delaware’s quarterback Pat Devlin.

“R.J. Toman is a really good passer,” Talley said.

The key to this contest should be Villanova’s defense. Villanova allowed the second-fewest points in the entire country. Senior defensive end Tim Kukucka leads the team with 14.5 tackles for a loss, including seven sacks. His performance during the regular season has earned him a spot on the Buck Buchanan Award list. The Buchanan Award is given to the best defensive player in the FCS. Considering how well New Hampshire throws the ball, Villanova needs to be prepared if it hopes to take another step towards a national championship.

“I think we are a better defensive team now than we were when we played them earlier,” Talley said. “I think we have matured and our defense has played some really good passers.”

The team which emerges victorious will take on the winner of Southern Illinois and William & Mary.