‘Cats defeat Fordham, keep rolling

Cailin Brophy

This year’s Villanova football team established itself as the best ever in program history on Saturday when it defeated the Fordham Rams, 24-10, at home to advance to the semifinals of the NCAA Division I-AA playoffs.

“This is the high point of my career,” ‘Nova head coach Andy Talley said after the program’s first ever quarterfinal victory. “I told the guys that if you win this game, you’re the best ever.”

The accolades are well-deserved for a team which, only a few weeks ago, had a slim to none chance of making the playoffs. With a victory next Saturday over the winner of the McNeese State/Montana game, the Wildcats would advance to the national championship game in Chattanooga, Tenn.

The fact that the Wildcats, who are the last team standing from the top-rated Atlantic 10, can say that is a testament to their fortitude and determination more so than any exceptional individual talent.

“Gritty is a great word for this team,” Talley said. “When you coach guys who are overachievers, it is even more rewarding.”

The grit which provided the last minute heroics against Delaware in the regular season finale and which enabled the ‘Cats to overcome a seemingly insurmountable lead against No. 6 Furman last week was put to use once again against Fordham, where its most identifiable expression was illustrated in team leader Brett Gordon. The senior quarterback, who was named Atlantic 10 Offensive Player of the Year and is one of three finalists for the Walter Payton Award, injured his thumb on his throwing hand on a sack in the first quarter. X-rays taken immediately after the game showed a slight fracture between the top of the thumb and the knuckle. Gordon stated that the injury caused throbbing and swelling in his thumb throughout the remainder of the contest. His status for the next game is uncertain at this point. Despite the injury, Gordon played out the rest of the game, and still managed to complete a near-perfect 26 of 30 passes for 219 yards and no interceptions.

“He’s a warrior,” Talley said of Gordon. “I almost pulled him at the end, but he’s very tough.”

Gordon was able to play through the pain en route to tossing two touchdowns passes on the afternoon, including a special play which involved a lateral pass to receiver Brian White, who then pitched the ball to tailback Mo Gibson, who ran in for the score with just under three minutes remaining in the first half. The touchdown gave the ‘Cats a 10-0 lead going into the locker rooms.

“I told [offensive coordinator Sam Venuto] to run our special play before they ran theirs,” Talley said of the nifty drive. “Fordham is a big-play team and we were able to pretty much control them and keep them from getting any long runs or big passes.”

In fact, the only big play that Fordham got was the result of a special teams miscue by the ‘Cats. A blocked punt deep in ‘Nova’s territory allowed the Rams to recover the ball at the one-yard line and subsequently score their only touchdown of the game, cutting the lead to 17-10 with just over ten minutes still left in the contest. ‘Nova snuffed out the momentum of the Rams’ strike, however, by putting together a 13-play, 76-yard drive for the final score of the afternoon, a Butler reception for a touchdown which sealed the victory for the ‘Cats. Butler, who hadn’t received as many touches in recent games, finished with 81 rushing yards on 19 carries to go along with 33 receiving yards, helping to establish a running presence which greatly benefited the ‘Cats, given Gordon’s status.

“Our passing opportunities were limited on offense,” Butler said. “Any time you get a chance to run the ball, you have to make the best of it.”

The always-hard-nosed ‘Nova defense was paced by Young, who recorded six solo tackles, including two for a loss, and a sack, as well as Isaiah Harrison and Darnell Greene, who each tallied seven tackles. Ray Ventrone filled in nicely for Brian Hulea at the linebacker position, recording five tackles. Hulea should be well enough to play next week.

The biggest victory in Wildcat football history since its reincarnation in 1983 was somewhat overshadowed by the injury to Gordon, as well as a strained MCL injury suffered by Gordon’s classmate, fullback Cameron Cross. There is no word yet on Cross’s status, although an injury of that nature usually takes four to six weeks to heal, according to Talley.

Despite the injuries, the ‘Cats will continue to rely on what has gotten them this far this season, namely the extremely close-knit bond which has come to characterize this team, a fact which has been alluded to throughout the season by several members of the team, most notably the seniors. Gordon has acknowledged that this is the “closest team [he’s] be on in five years,” while linebacker and fellow captain Jamison Young stated that the bond which his team has felt since training camp has provided them with the confidence they’ve needed throughout the season to dismantle opponents and dispel critics who picked Villanova to finish sixth in the Atlantic 10.

“A lot of times, it’s what inside,” Young said. “Inside, we knew we were capable.”