Defense leads Villanova to victory over Penn



David Cassilo

The football team was once again on upset alert at Franklin Field against the Penn Quakers this past Saturday, but the No. 2 Wildcats were able to overcome their offensive struggles and do just enough to win, 14-3.

After the opening kickoff, it appeared as though the game would be a rout in Villanova’s favor, as junior Matt Szczur returned the kick 87 yards for a touchdown 14 seconds into the game.

“I broke a tackle, and Phil Matusz had a block up the middle, and I think he knocked him on his back,” Szczur said. “As soon as I saw that, I knew I was going.”

Despite the fast start, the Wildcats ran into offensive trouble against the Quakers. Junior quarterback Chris Whitney was off his game, often holding onto the football too long and taking sacks. Whitney did not complete a pass until 7:54 remaining in the second quarter. His first half also included an interception to senior cornerback Jonathan Moore in the second quarter.

The Quakers had their own offensive troubles, and like Villanova, they were unable to move the ball. Except for a second quarter field goal by junior Andrew Samson, the Quakers did not have any scoring threats.

While part of the problem may have been rust (this being Penn’s first game), another issue was the strong Villanova defense.

“Sometimes you have to have a game where you hang your hat on one side of the ball,” said Head Coach Andy Talley. “We hung our hat on special teams and defense tonight. We were really out of sync offensively.”

In particular, the Wildcat pass rush stepped up and pressured Penn’s junior quarterback Keiffer Garton all night long.

“We didn’t get any sacks in the Temple game and had just one in the Lehigh game, so our coach wanted us to put more pressure on the quarterback,” said junior linebacker Terrence Thomas.

Villanova got that pressure against Penn and had six sacks in the game, including two from both Thomas and senior defensive end Tim Kukucka and 1.5 from junior defensive end Mario Johnson, his first as a Wildcat.

Despite success from the defense, the Wildcats still needed a spark from their offense. After Whitney’s first two possessions of the second half led to a fumble and a three-and-out, Talley turned to senior quarterback Antwon Young, the team’s former starter.

For Young it was a chance to redeem himself at the site of his biggest failure, a four-interception game last year at Franklin Field that almost led to a Penn upset. That game cost Young the starting job.

This time around, things turned out differently. With Young at the helm, the Wildcats marched down field. The drive was almost over before it started as Young needed a 24-yard scramble on an early first down to keep the possession alive. Seven plays later, Young connected with senior wide receiver Brandyn Harvey for a 5-yard touchdown to give Villanova a 14-3 lead.

“We play Antwon on the third series of every game to give him an opportunity to do what he did tonight, to be able to come into a game and turn the flavor of the game our way,” Talley said. “He gave us the motivation to get going, and he gave us the spark.”

Young’s performance gave his team a two-possession lead, and that was all the Villanova defense would need as it clamped down and stifled the Penn offense. A blocked field goal from Kukucka early in the fourth quarter sealed the deal as the Quakers never had another scoring opportunity.

The Wildcats held on for the win, but the final numbers suggest there is still work to do. Penn outgained Villanova 239 to 187, including 185 to 59 in the air. Whitney led the team in passing (completing just three of seven passes) with 38 yards, and Young led the team in rushing with just 36 yards. No Wildcat running back had more than 27 yards on the ground.

Even with the win to move the team to 3-0, the team’s weak offensive performance was not lost on their head coach.

“This is a little bit of a downer for us offensively,” Talley said. “It’s one of those deals where you go back to the drawing board and wonder what happened, and you have to improve.”

Villanova will have to improve quickly as it will now enter the conference portion of its schedule. It will be a diffciult road as five CAA teams are ranked in the top seven nationally. The first of those challenging games will be this Saturday, when the Wildcats host the Northeastern Huskies at 3:30 p.m.