Villanova falls in FCS quarterfinals

Nathan McGann

Villanova’s season came to an end on Saturday after top-ranked James Madison (12-1) defeated the Wildcats (10-3) 31-27 in the quarterfinals of the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs. The Dukes’ senior quarterback Rodney Landers put the nail in the coffin of the Wildcats again late in the fourth quarter, scoring a 1-yard rushing touchdown with a little over a minute remaining in the game. It was Landers who completed the Hail Mary pass with no time on the clock when Villanova hosted James Madison in the regular season, the Wildcats’ only loss to an FCS opponent all year.

Landers, a finalist for the Walter Payton Award, given to the best offensive player in the FCS, was virtually unstoppable against a formidable Villanova defense. He threw for 157 yards and three touchdowns on top of his 151 yards and a touchdown on the ground. The game also cemented Landers in the record books, as he set the JMU record for touchdown passes in a season with 23 and became one of only five FCS quarterbacks to both rush and throw for over 3,000 yards in a career. Landers eclipsed 3,000 yards of total offense for the season.

“He’s one of the toughest players I’ve ever played against,” Villanova senior safety Darrel Young said. “He’s so slippery and so agile. He’s a fullback who can throw the ball.”

The Wildcats and Head Coach Andy Talley were expecting an all-world performance from the JMU quarterback. What they did not expect was a vastly improved defense from the one they faced in October.

The James Madison defenders held Villanova, one of the best rushing teams in the country, to only 81 yards, well under the team’s season average. JMU Head Coach Mickey Matthews decided to alter his defense, which allowed 229 yards rushing in the first meeting, in order to contain the Villanova running attack. Matthews elected to go with a 4-3 defense instead of his usual 3-4 scheme. The game plan worked to perfection.

With James Madison executing on nearly every down, Villanova had to limit its mistakes and essentially play perfect football to have any chance at the upset. However, the young squad made one too many errors.

After sophomore wide receiver Matt Szczur threw a touchdown pass to senior tight end Steve Pimm to give the Wildcats their only lead of the game, a 27-24 margin with only 4:22 left in the fourth quarter, Pimm was flagged for excessive celebration after he removed his helmet on the field while heading to the sideline. The 15-yard penalty was tacked onto the ensuing kickoff, and a decent return by the dangerous Scotty McGee gave Landers and company a short field for the go-ahead score.

“You can’t take your helmet off on the field,” Pimm said. “That’s the rule.”

A missed PAT earlier in the game meant the Wildcats had to score a touchdown instead of a potential game-tying field goal on their final drive.

Villanova sophomore quarterback Chris Whitney did what he could to keep the Wildcats close the entire game. Whitney completed 13-of-20 passes for a career-high 213 yards and threw a 26-yard touchdown pass to junior receiver Brandyn Harvey to bring the Wildcats to within four and give the team a chance to take the lead. On their next drive, Whitney marched the offense downfield, allowing Szczur to pass for the go-ahead score only to watch JMU answer again.

In the end, Landers and the Dukes proved to be too much.

“I had a big victory cigar lit,” Talley said after the final team meeting on Sunday. “I wanted them to know I was smoking it because we had a reason to be celebrating. We accomplished a lot. I wanted them to know that. We were one of the best teams all year. That’s the deal.”

Villanova had an exceptional season in which they played the No. 1-ranked team three times. It defeated Richmond once but lost to JMU twice, but only after the Dukes pulled off a last-minute drive. It finished with only one loss in arguably the best conference in the league and advanced in the playoffs for the first time since 2002.

Next year should be much of the same since the coaching staff will welcome back many key components on both sides of the ball. But now, those comforts will do little to alleviate the disappointment from Saturday’s defeat.

“We played with great heart all year,” Talley said. “The problem with the playoffs is, you have a great season but only one team doesn’t go home hurting. You just wonder when one of these is going to go our way. The frustrating thing is going to be watching JMU or Richmond play for a national title.”