’Nova hosts first home playoff game since ’09 season

Frank Scicchitano

The last FCS playoff game played at Villanova Stadium was during the 2009 postseason when the Wildcats defeated William and Mary by one point in the semifinals to advance to the national championship game. The following week, Villanova upset top-seeded Montana to win the program’s only national title.

Saturday, postseason play will return to Villanova Stadium when the sixth-seeded Wildcats will host Liberty in second round of the 2014 FCS Playoffs.

Villanova ended the regular season with a 10-2 overall record and ranked fifth in the coaches’ poll. In CAA play, the Wildcats tallied a record of 7-1 and finished second in the conference, behind New Hampshire.

The Wildcats earned a much-needed first-round bye that allowed them to take a few days off from practice and recover from a tough regular season schedule. 

Head Coach Andy Talley stressed the importance of the bye week and how much it helped his players get into the right mindset heading into the playoffs.

“In the playoffs, it’s a ‘one-and-done’ mentality,” Talley said. “You have everything on the line and you need to come into the game in championship form.”

Luckily, many members of this team have experienced playing in big games, and that will certainly be at the Wildcats’ advantage as they prepare to host a Liberty team that is riding momentum from its first round victory. 

The Flames finished the regular season with a record of 8-4 and posted a 4-1 record in the Big South conference. 

In the opening round of the playoff tournament last Saturday, Liberty halted James Madison’s seven-game winning streak with a 26-21 victory over the Dukes.

An impressive defensive effort by Liberty held James Madison to just 65 yards of total offense in the second half and shut down star quarterback Vad Lee by limiting him to 196 yards of total offense. 

It was the first time this season that an FCS opponent has held Lee, a finalist for the Walter Payton Award for the nation’s most outstanding player at the FCS level, to fewer than 200 total yards. The Flames will need an equally impressive effort from their defense if they hope to stop Villanova’s quarterback John Robertson. 

The dual-threat junior, also a finalist for the Walter Payton Award, ranks 11th in the country, averaging just over 300 yards of total offense per game. Liberty has experience and skill on the defensive side of the ball that could potentially disrupt Robertson and the Wildcats’ offensive rhythm. 

Senior safety Jacob Hagen leads the Flames with 96 total tackles and eight interceptions. Another member of the secondary, senior cornerback Kenny Scott, is fourth on the team with 57 tackles and has five takeaways on the season.

Villanova will also need to be aware of a handful of Liberty defensive linemen who have shown they have the ability to rush the quarterback. 

Senior Toby Onyechi leads the group with eight and a half sacks, and two other Flames have tallied more than seven. 

Talley anticipates Robertson will have more success against Liberty’s defense than James Madison’s Lee did.

“He has a presence about him in the pocket,” Talley explained about Robertson. “He’ll stick with his reads long enough to get a guy open and once the rush is gone he will find seams and take advantage of [his] ability to run.”

Robertson and the Wildcat offense have had no trouble putting points on the board this season as they average a CAA-best 39 points per contest. 

They will need to continue their offensive success to stay ahead of a Liberty offense that has been just as good, scoring over 32 points per game.

The Flames’ D.J. Abner is the catalyst of their offense and finished the regular season second in the Big South in rushing as he amassed over 1,200 yards and 15 touchdowns.

“They play action a lot off of Abner,” Talley noted. “He’s a really good back and when you go into a game like this you need to go in thinking about their ability to run and throw.”

Abner’s consistency and big-play ability helps set up Liberty’s effective passing attack, led by quarterback Josh Woodrum. The junior has completed 63 percent of his passes on the season and has thrown 19 touchdowns against only nine interceptions. 

Woodrum’s favorite target is junior Darrin Peterson. The 6-foot-2 wide receiver has posted tremendous numbers this season that include 80 receptions for 1,276 yards and 12 touchdowns. 

Liberty’s playmakers will certainly present a challenge for Villanova’s defense, but the Wildcats have proven capable of coming up with stops at critical moments this season.

It has been five years since Villanova’s last home playoff game, and the team is looking forward to using the home field advantage to help them defeat Liberty and advance to the quarterfinals.

Talley and the entire team encourage the student body to come out and support the Wildcats on Saturday afternoon. Kickoff is scheduled for 4:30 p.m.