‘Cats hungry after bittersweet 2001 campaign

Leslie Campbell

Under the leadership and talent of fifth year senior Brian Westbrook, Villanova was set to have its most stellar season yet in 2001. The running back began the season with the pressure to perform after making the difficult decision to remain for his final year of eligibility on the Main Line forfeiting the 2001 NFL Draft.

The season began at home against Colgate Aug. 30 and Villanova came out strong, winning its sixth consecutive home opener 38-14. Junior quarterback Brett Gordan helped Westbrook lead the offensive squad before the game was called in the fourth quarter due to lightning.

The Wildcats easily defeated Northeastern 31-14, and just barely squeeked by Richmond 31-30 and James Madison 45-44.

‘Nova found itself down 30-15 with 11:39 left in the fourth quarter and rallied back to take home a one-point victory against the Spiders with Casey Hannon’s 30-yard field goal with one second left in regulation. Gordan threw for 376 yards and four touchdowns, while Shaz Brown caught nine passes for 123 yards and two touchdowns.

Carrying the momentum from the dramatic comeback against Richmond into The Villanovan Stadium Oct. 6 to battle James Madison, Westbrook and his teammates had another tremendous day. The game went into double overtime, with Westbrook leaving with five touchdowns, the final a dramatic dive into the end zone with one second left. Hannon’s extra point lifted the ‘Cats up for good and kept them undefeated.

Armed with the positive energy of a 4-0 start, ‘Nova’s season reached a critical turning point in its 17-14 loss to New Haven at home. The ‘Cats attempted to mount a comeback in the third, but the turnovers would just not go away and the men fell to 4-1 for the season.

The following Saturday Villanova traveled up north to take on the Maine Black Bears and mounted an early lead, but when Maine pushed back, the defense could not stop them from overcoming a 19-point third quarter deficit to defeat the ‘Cats 44-40.

Now 4-2 for the record, ‘Nova had to turn things around and did when it decisively beat UMass 47-13. The ‘Cats went on to overcome its next three opponents securing victories over New Hampshire 38-35, Hofstra 54-34 and Delaware 19-14.

Entering the William & Mary game with a 6-4 record, a win would more than likely lift the ‘Cats into the NCAA I-AA playoffs. However the Tribe intercepted a pass with 25 seconds left on the clock to beat the ‘Cats 47-44, leaving a much bitter taste in the mouths of the exiting ‘Nova seniors.

Westbrook’s 332 all-purpose yards in his final collegiate game brought his career total to 9,512, breaking the NCAA all-divisions record of 9,301 yards set by Brian Shay of Division II Emporia State from ’95-’98.

Atlantic 10 preview

The Wildcats play in what is arguably the toughest conference in Division I-AA football, the Atlantic 10. In addition to being the most competitive league, the A-10 is also perenially wide open each year. With all 11 teams feeling that have an equal shot at the title, the scramble for bragging rights isn’t merely tough, it gets downright nasty. Trying to pick a winner can give reporters and fans fits.

“Picking the winner of this league is a crapshoot, it’s just ridiculous,” coach Talley said. “To handicap this league is almost impossible. Last year there were five teams in our league that won eight games.”

Villanova got a taste of just how difficult it can be in this conference to rise above the other teams and get ahead. Despite owning a share of the Atlantic 10 regular season crown, the ‘Cats caught the losing end of a four-way tie which locked them out of the playoffs. You can be sure that the taste of that bittersweet memory still lingers in their mouths, especially when they face their fellow defending champions. Close losses to William & Mary and Maine, games which, if they had gone ‘Nova’s way, would have secured them sole possession of first and a berth in the playoffs, should prove to be intense battles. Both teams are perennial powerhouse squads and are returning more of their starters from last season than Villanova will be. The ESPN/USA Today Preseason poll has the Tribe ranked 10th overall, with the Black Bears of Maine close behind at number 15. Although the ‘Cats are ranked slightly lower at no. 25 and have been picked to finish in the middle of the pack in the Atlantic 10, they still feel that, given the nature of their conference, it’s anybody’s title to win.

“There’s always going to be pressure, critics, rumors and big shoes to fill,” tailback Henry Ridley said.

“Our conference is one of the best in I-AA football, so we have to be ready each week.

Teams are getting better all across the board and that is the good part about our league, it’s always competitive.”

Along with William & Mary and Maine, the preseason Top 25 also features two other Atlantic 10 squads, with Hofstra ranked no. 13 and Delaware slotted at the no. 21 spot. Yet the Wildcats know all too well that rankings mean very little in their division. Rather than keeping their eyes on the newspapers, their minds on focused on the task at hand.

“If we win the close games, we have a great shot to win the title,” Talley said. “You have to win close games to win the title in this league, and so far we’ve been pretty good at it. Because of our offense, we’re always in games. The schedule is rough but we need to stay healthy and just grow every week.”