No. 4 Villanova gets revenge, shuts out James Madison



David Cassilo

A bitter taste has lingered in the mouth of the football team since last season’s two losses to James Madison, but last Saturday that taste became sweet, as the No. 4 Villanova got its revenge by defeating the Dukes 27-0 on James Madison’s homecoming weekend.

A season ago, the ‘Cats suffered two heartbreaking losses to the Dukes, the first of which was at home on a Hail Mary pass for a touchdown as time expired, while the second was Villanova’s season-ending loss in the second round of the FCS playoffs.

This time, though, Villanova made sure that a win would not be stolen from them in the final seconds, as the ‘Cats played a complete game, building an early lead and protecting it.

“It was one of our very best, much like the game we played last year against Richmond,” said Head Coach Andy Talley. “We played compact football, unbelievable on defense and our special teams was superior.”

Villanova put the pressure on James Madison early, scoring on its first drive with a touchdown pass from junior quarterback Chris Whitney to senior fullback Tony Canci. The drive was sparked by a 44-yard run from junior wide receiver Matt Szczur, and began what would be a big day for the versatile wideout, as he finished with 76 rushing yards, 53 receiving yards and two touchdowns.

After a Villanova field goal at the beginning of the second quarter to make the score 10-0, James Madison hoped to get its offense going. As the Dukes approached Villanova territory, their redshirt freshman quarterback Thorpe had the ball jarred from his hands by junior safety John Dempsey on a run. Sophomore cornerback James Pitts recovered the ball for Villanova, in what would prove to be the turning point of the game.

Just four plays later, Whitney connected with Szczur on a 30-yard touchdown pass to push the lead to 17-0.

On the very next possession, Thorpe committed the same mistake as junior linebacker Terence Thomas forced a fumble that was recovered by junior safety Frederick Maldonado. Villanova again was able to capitalize, adding a 32-yard field goal from redshirt freshman Nick Yako to make the score 20-0 at halftime.

Despite the large halftime lead, the Wildcats remembered last year’s defeats and were focused to make sure they held on to victory this time around.

“Even when we went up 20-0 at halftime, we came out the second half primed and ready to go because in the CAA, teams come back,” Talley said. “We came back and continued to dominate the game.”

On the Wildcats second possession of the third quarter, the team put the game away for good as Whitney again connected with Szczur on a touchdown pass, this time for 22 yards.

“Matt is one of those special players that you try to figure out ways to get the ball in his hands,” Talley said. “We got the ball in his hands 12 times, and we’d like to give it to him more, but he is on all special teams because he is so good across the board. He was tremendous in the Wildcat and set up the first touchdown with the run.”

Villanova’s defense continued its dominance and made up for its worst performance of the season a week ago at New Hampshire. James Madison was only able to average 3.3 yards per rush, and Thorpe completed just 13 of 32 passes. The shutout also dropped the Wildcats’ scoring defense average to 13.7 points per game, the best in the CAA.

The complete game that Villanova played was rounded out by an equally impressive performance from its special teams. The unit’s toughest task would be containing senior kick returner Scotty McGee, who led the CAA in kick-return average with 30 yards per return and has amassed six returns for touchdowns in his career. Against Villanova, though, he totaled just 58 yards on four kick returns and negative four yards on one punt return.

One of the main reasons for McGee’s limited impact was the play freshmen defensive back Ronnie Akins, who has been a mainstay on Villanova’s kick coverage this season. Every time McGee fielded a kick, Akins was one of the first around him.

“Ronnie is one of our highly recruited freshmen players from North Penn High School,” Talley said. “He is just an outstanding football player and has a great feel on special teams. He can run, and he gets around the ball. He is just an outstanding athlete.”

The win gave Villanova a 2-1 record through its toughest stretch of the season, a home game versus William & Mary and road games at New Hampshire and James Madison, all of which were ranked at the time of the games.