FBALL: Villanova holds off late surge on road

Nathan McGann

The No. 7 Villanova Wildcats escaped an upset on Nov. 1 with a 20-14 win over the Northeastern Huskies at Parsons Field in Brookline, Mass. It took an interception from sophomore linebacker Marquis Kirkland at the Villanova 2-yard line to end what could have been the go-ahead drive for the Huskies with a little over five minutes remaining in the game.

Instead, the Wildcats began their final drive after the turnover at their own 8-yard line and ran down the clock, going 88 yards in 12 plays before sophomore quarterback Chris Whitney took a knee with under a minute remaining.

“Our captains said one of us had to make a play,” Kirkland said after the game. “I think we were waiting for somebody else to make a play. When the interception happened, that’s what we needed.”

With the narrow victory, the Wildcats managed to avoid back-to-back conference losses that would have seriously complicated the team’s playoff chances, especially with a top-10 ranked New Hampshire team scheduled for Saturday.

After giving up a touchdown to Northeastern on the opening drive – a drive in which the Huskies converted a fourth-and-8 on a fake punt deep in their own territory – the Wildcats came back to score 20 unanswered points in about 12 minutes before the half ended.

The first points came at the end of a 60-yard drive with a 20-yard touchdown pass from Whitney to sophomore receiver Matt Szczur. They added another touchdown on a six-yard rush from sophomore running back Aaron Ball during their next drive to open the second quarter.

Villanova senior kicker Joe Marcoux kicked field goals of 28 and 42 yards to bring the score to 20-7. Marcoux’s two kicks tied the Villanova record for most field goals made in a single season with 13.

Realizing there was a serious chance of falling to 2-7 overall and 1-4 in the conference, the Huskies tried to erase the 13-point deficit and began playing with urgency in the second half.

Halfway through the third quarter, Huskies senior linebacker Cornelius Bunch intercepted Whitney and returned it for 43 yards, setting up Northeastern’s second touchdown of the game. Senior quarterback Anthony Orio hit junior receiver Tony Lott, who scrambled 20 yards into the end zone to bring the Huskies within six.

Bunch said he noticed something earlier when Whitney completed a 54-yard pass to junior receiver Brandyn Harvey that helped him haul in the interception.

“He doesn’t look off his receivers,” Bunch said. “I was just watching his eyes.”

Just as they did at the end of their game against James Madison, the Wildcats struggled to put the opposition away in the fourth quarter. Marcoux missed a 38-yard field goal that would have made it a two-possession game, and Whitney threw a second interception that gave the Huskies a chance to take the lead late.

However, thanks to Kirkland’s pick in the red zone and an impressive closing drive, the Wildcats avoided the late game collapse.

The team certainly had something to be afraid of during their Halloween weekend on the road.

“We were scared to death of them coming into the game,” Head Coach Andy Talley said. “They’ve been running so many different things and special plays, and when you’re 2-6, I think you’ll try a lot of different things. They do a lot of things. For them to be 2-7 right now is a shame. They’re an excellent team. They just have a rough, rough schedule.”

The win gave Talley 97 conference victories for his career, which ties the all-time record set by former UNH Head Coach Bill Bowes.

Despite the two interceptions, Whitney had yet another quality performance, finishing with 161 yards and a touchdown on 11-of-16 passing. He and Ball, who rushed for 91 yards on 17 carries, helped the ‘Cats top the 200-yards rushing mark for the third-consecutive game.

Senior receiver Phil Atkinson caught a team-high six passes for 58 yards, and Harvey had 73 receiving yards on three receptions.

The Wildcats dominated both time of possession and total yards. The offense put up 426 yards compared to Northeastern’s 275 yards of total offense.

While the team looked forward to coming home, Talley made sure to enjoy this moment since he could remember how Northeastern dashed all hopes Villanova had at a playoff opportunity in 2002.

“My players haven’t been here before,” Talley said. “I have been here before and have had my heart broken. I thought it would be a nasty game, but I thought at the end we would have enough to win.”

With the victory, Villanova moved up one spot to No. 6 in the FCS Sports Network poll released Monday.