FBALL: ‘Cats fall on last-second Hail Mary

Nathan McGann

The No. 7 Villanova Wildcats faced a devastating loss on Oct. 25 to the top-ranked James Madison Dukes 23-19 after Duke senior quarterback Rodney Landers heaved a 35-yard Hail Mary pass into the wind with no time remaining on the clock. The pass was tipped by Villanova linebacker Osayi Osunde then went off safety Darrel Young’s helmet before it found the hands of JMU junior receiver Bosco Williams for the game-winning score.

“I didn’t really believe it at first,” Williams said. “But then everyone started jumping on me. It feels good.”

The same could not be said for the Villanova sideline.

“It was one of the more bitter losses that we’ve had,” Head Coach Andy Talley said.

As the James Madison offense prepared to take the field, the Villanova crowd of just over 6,700, who braved pouring rain and violent winds for nearly two-and-a-half hours, was confident that the Wildcats were about to upset their second-straight No. 1-ranked opponent and remain the only conference-undefeated team. They quickly learned that one team’s glory was another team’s heartbreak.

The James Madison players and coaching staff remained poised on the road and in poor conditions, but the Wildcats, who played well for most of the game and out-rushed the best running team in the conference, made several key mistakes that resulted in the Dukes’ miracle victory.

The Wildcats had a chance to run the clock out at the end of the fourth quarter but failed to convert on a third-down play with six yards to go. There was only a little over a minute remaining on the clock.

Instead, the special teams unit was forced to take the field and punt to explosive return specialist junior Scotty McGee. With the wind in their favor, the Wildcats had a great opportunity to pin the Dukes down near their own end zone, but a 14-yard punt out of bounds gave the Dukes decent field position at their own 34-yard line.

The Villanova defense did a good job of containing Landers initially, and the senior quarterback faced a difficult fourth and 10, which he had to convert to keep the drive alive. The Wildcats were unable to put the Dukes away, as Landers converted for the first down with an easy pass to an open wide receiver.

Landers capitalized on the opportunity. He quickly added an impressive 13-yard run and a 9-yard pass, with two spikes sprinkled in between, to set up the improbable finish.

“I just threw it up,” Landers said. “Someone upstairs was smiling on us.”

Landers showed a grit and toughness that the Villanova defense simply could not counter. He finished with 133 yards rushing against a Villanova team that was ranked No. 1 in the conference against the run. Landers tacked on an additional 184 passing yards with three touchdowns.

Talley recognized the impact Landers had on the game.

“Our goal was to slow him down, not to stop him,” Talley said. “And I don’t think we slowed him down.”

Despite the statistics and the final score, Villanova showed throughout that it had the skill and determination to contend with the best in the country. There was little doubt in the locker room that the team could come away with a victory.

“They’re good, and they got lucky,” Talley said. “You have to be good to get lucky. I thought we could throw against them, and I knew we could run against them.”

The Wildcats found themselves in an early 14-3 hole in the second quarter but settled down nicely. Holding the ball for over 21 minutes compared to the Dukes’ eight minutes of possession, the ‘Cats dominated both the second and third quarters. They scored 16 unanswered points to take a 19-14 lead early in the fourth.

Quarterback Chris Whitney showed why this coaching staff is confident that he can lead the team. There were questions entering the game about his health after he was forced to leave last week’s contest against Rhode Island with a shoulder injury. Fighting through the soreness, Whitney managed an offense that converted 8-of-14 third downs, two fourth downs and executed a 97-yard touchdown drive at the end of the second quarter. He finished with 48 yards and a touchdown passing on top of an additional 75 yards on the ground.

JMU Head Coach Mickey Matthews spoke of Whitney’s abilities.

“The best quarterback we have played was that kid tonight,” Matthews said. “When they needed five, he gave them six.”

Aaron Ball and Matthew Szczur also had productive afternoons. Ball had 108 yards on the ground, topping the 100 mark for the third time in his last four games. Wide receiver Szczur rushed for 68 yards and a touchdown out of a formation that had him frequently line up at the quarterback position.

In Monday’s FCS Sports Network poll, ‘Nova remained at No. 7 despite the loss. JMU retained its top spot. The loss snaps a home winning streak of nine games for the ‘Cats, as well as a seven-game winning streak against FCS opponents.

“There are four more games,” Talley said. “For me as a coach, our job is to rally the troops and see if we can become a championship team.”