‘Cats silence Blue Hens in must-win game

Cailin Brophy

If teams are defined by how they perform when the game and even the season is on the line, then the Wildcats are surely a force to be reckoned with.

On third and goal at the seven-yard line with only 15 seconds remaining, quarterback Brett Gordon completed his 39th pass of the game to wide-out classmate Brian White in the left corner of the end zone to spoil the Delaware comeback and garner the 38-34 victory for his team.

In their last game of the season against bitter conference rival Delaware, the ‘Cats faced not only a 34-31 deficit with time running out but also the specter of narrowly missing the playoffs for the second straight year. The Delaware faithful, over 20,000 strong, were ready to celebrate an undefeated home record; however, Gordon had something to say about that.

“I told the [offensive line], ‘I swear to God, just give me time and we’ll win this game,'” the fifth-year senior said of his last-minute heroics.

Villanova’s all-time most accurate quarterback saved the best for last in what was undoubtedly the best game of his career. White, the primary beneficiary of Gordon’s play, commented on the season-saving score.

“He put the ball right in my chest, so all I had to do was catch it,” he said. “It was a great throw.”

Tallying 538 yards of total offense, earning a 3-of-3 conversion mark on fourth downs and giving an overall gutsy effort were enough to overcome the necessary adjustments and a faulty kicking game and propel the Wildcats past Delaware and into the NCAA playoffs, as the Division I-AA selection committee recognized the success of a Villanova squad that finished the season 9-3 overall with a 6-3 mark in the Atlantic 10.

The ‘Cats will be making their first appearance in the postseason since 1997 and will face last season’s national runner-up Furman University of the Southern Conference on Saturday at Villanova Stadium, with kickoff set for noon.

Although the present Wildcat squad lacks playoff experience, what they do possess is a seasoned core of veterans who have proven time and again that they can step up in big-time games. The windy field conditions were not enough to quell a record-breaking 460-yard passing performance by Gordon, who made good on an astounding 39 of 62 passes without throwing an interception, while tossing three scoring strikes. The 460-yard effort was the fifth-best all-time by any quarterback in Division I-AA history.

“He’s proven he’s the best quarterback we’ve ever had,” said Villanova head coach Andy Talley. “He showed class under pressure and played with heart.”

However, Gordon wasn’t the only senior to excel on the field. White’s game-winning grab gave him 165 yards on the day on 11 receptions to go along with two touchdowns. Fellow senior, fullback Cameron Cross, matched White’s 11 catches for 121 yards, both career-highs for him, to go along with a touchdown.

On the few occasions where Gordon handed off instead of taking to the air, freshman tailback Mo Gibson shouldered much of the load, averaging 4.6 yards per carry while scoring twice.

Both teams had to make plenty of adjustments before and throughout what Talley called “a typical ‘Nova vs. Delaware game.” The Fightin’ Blue Hens had to do without the services of junior quarterback Andy Hall, who tore his rotator cuff a week earlier. First-year head coach K.C. Keeler gave the call to freshman Mike Connor, who gave up his redshirt to start for his squad. Connor was able enjoy largely unanticipated success against the ‘Cats, who were without their best run-stopper, linebacker Brian Hulea, who is recovering from mononucleosis. Two of Delaware’s touchdowns came on quarterback draws in which Connor exploded out of the pocket and into the end zone, leading to his 52 rushing yards on the day.

“We never really caught up to what [Connor] was doing,” Talley said. “He hurt us a couple of times on the quarterback draw.”

The Blue Hens used a run-oriented attack throughout much of the game, with tailback Keith Burnell becoming only the second player this season to rush for over 100 yards against the ‘Cats. His 11-yard touchdown run with 13:55 remaining in the fourth quarter gave his team its first lead of the game. However, the combination of ‘Nova’s superb senior class performance, along with a painful nine penalties for 109 yards by the Blue Hens, were too much to overcome, as the Wildcats gained a narrow edge in the all-time series, 18-17-1.

“I knew that this was going to be one of those games where whoever has the ball last wins,” Talley said. “The tension, pressure and emotions were so intense that I just resigned myself to saying, ‘please let us have the ball last.'”