FBALL Recap: ‘Nova defense shuts down UNH

Nathan McGann

The No. 6 Villanova Wildcats defeated another highly ranked opponent in front of the home fans with a 24-13 win over No. 8 New Hampshire on Nov. 8. The victory not only put Villanova one step closer to its first playoff appearance since 2002, but it also gave Head Coach Andy Talley the record for most wins ever in Colonial Athletic Association football with 98.

Coming into the game, Talley was tied with New Hampshire great Bill Bowes, and he did not shy away from describing how satisfying it was to achieve the record against his former mentor while also putting the team in position for postseason play.

“Bill and I have had our battles,” Talley said. “It was sweet to pull it off against New Hampshire. I’m just happy I’ve been at a place long enough and steady enough to break that kind of a record. I’m just more concerned [that] we continue to march toward the playoffs.”

The Villanova defense was nothing short of impressive. UNH’s offense ranks as one of the best in the conference in both points scored, with 38.4, and total offense, with 417.4 yards, but ‘Nova held them to well under both those figures.

New Hampshire had shown it prefers to spread the field and execute a quick-scoring attack through the air with sophomore quarterback R.J. Toman at the helm. In order to combat this style of offense, Talley felt the defense needed to pressure the quarterback and disrupt UNH’s rhythm. While Villanova sent more blitzers than usual, the regular three- and four-man lines showed they had enough strength and toughness to get to the quarterback on their own.

Sophomore linebacker Terrence Thomas sacked Toman with just over two minutes remaining in the first half, forcing a fumble that was recovered by junior Villanova lineman Damien Kelley. Villanova recorded five sacks overall and pushed UNH back on several occasions, forcing them into a number of long-yardage situations that made it difficult to put points on the board.

“I thought we would have to stay score-for-score with them because we knew they could score quickly,” Talley said. “This game really belonged to our defense. They did their job in the second half.”

The victory on the defensive side did not come without casualties, however. Greg Miller – a captain and candidate for the Buchanan Award, which is presented to the most outstanding defensive player in the FCS – left the game early with a sprained knee and did not return. Recognizing Miller’s absence, UNH started the second half rushing the ball on 12 of its 13 plays before having to kick a field goal.

“Losing Greg Miller was hard on us,” Talley said. “He’s our top-notch captain and defensive end and that hurt a little bit.”

There was no other mention as to the extent of the injury after the game.

A defense alone does not win football games, and Villanova’s offense continued to pound the ball on the ground, rushing for over 200 yards for the sixth-consecutive game. The number of weapons Villanova utilizes when running the football makes it difficult for opposing defenses.

The combination of sophomore tailback Aaron Ball and tough-nosed sophomore quarterback Chris Whitney, who gained 70 yards on 11 carries, forces defenses to crowd the box, opening up the passing game. Ball moved 73 yards closer to becoming the third ‘Nova player to rush for 1,000 yards, the first since Brian Westbrook in 2001.

Antwon Young entered the game for Whitney early in the second quarter for a key drive with Villanova trailing by a touchdown. He led the offense downfield and capped off a 13-play drive with a 3-yard touchdown run to tie the game. Young’s drive lasted just over six minutes.

Not to be outdone, Whitney rejoined the offense late in the second quarter after Villanova gave up a UNH field goal and showed he is just as effective with his arm as he is with his legs. Whitney threw a pass to a blanketed Brandon Harvey in the corner of the end zone for a 3-yard touchdown. The score put Villanova on top 14-10, and the team never trailed again.

Time and again, Whitney displayed the skills and intangibles vital to a successful quarterback, and it was his vision and trust in those around him that helped him to execute one of the more spectacular plays of the year.

Up 14-13 and looking to put more pressure on UNH late in the fourth quarter, Whitney started to run the ball up the middle before noticing receiver Phil Atkinson wide open on the right side of the field. Just as he arrived at the trenches, Whitney pitched the football on the option about five yards to Atkinson, who scrambled the remaining 17 yards almost untouched into the end zone.

The final score for Villanova came on a Joe Marcoux 35-yard field goal with 1:33 left in the game. The field goal made it a two-possession affair and all but sealed the victory for Villanova. The field goal was Marcoux’s 14th of the season, which gives him the school record for most in a single season.

Talley emphasized the importantce of a victory over a ranked foe.

“This was a playoff game,” Talley said. “You saw two playoff teams play today. All in all, this was a very gutty and physical performance.”