‘Cats cut down Lumberjacks, move on to quarterfinals

Nate McGann

Last season, the Wildcats finally broke through and took home their first national championship. On Saturday, they accomplished another playoff first in a big way. Villanova dominated then second-ranked Stephen F. Austin, 54-24, for its first-ever playoff road win, earning a spot in the quarterfinals against top-seeded Appalachian State.

It didn’t look good for the defending champions early as they fell behind by 14. Going into the game there was concern from the Villanova coaching staff about SFA’s vaunted passing attack led by senior quarterback Jeremy Moses. Moses came out throwing on all cylinders, and it felt like the ‘Cats were in store for a long day.

Down 21-7 early in the second quarter, Villanova was forced to punt and could ill-afford to fall behind by three touchdowns. The Wildcats forced a fumble on the punt and recovered the ball on the Lumberjack 29-yard line. From there it was all Villanova.

“That was the big turning point,” Head Coach Andy Talley said. “I was comfortable being seven or 14 behind, but you get down 21 and that takes us out of what we wanted to do, which was mix up the pass and the run.”

Villanova seemed to channel the magic from last season’s run, and all the credit goes to the return of senior wide receiver Matt Szczur who was playing in only his second game since returning from an ankle injury that forced him to miss most of the season.

Szczur was his usual self once again, acting as the dual threat both on the ground and in the passing game. He finished with 68 yards on nine carries and caught 11 passes for an additional 128 yards, including a 51-yard touchdown reception late in the game.

“Having him on the field makes us a different team,” said Villanova quarterback Chris Whitney. “Even if he’s not getting the ball, he’s drawing a lot of people to him.”

Szczur wasn’t the only Wildcat to put up big numbers. Both Whitney and senior wide receiver Norman White had career days. Whitney threw for a career-high five touchdowns, three of which went to White. White’s three touchdown receptions trumped his previous career mark. Even the special teams unit contributed to the onslaught with some timely trickery. Talley called a perfectly timed fake field-goal, and holder Marlon Calbi connected with White for the game-tying touchdown.

“That was a perfect time to pull a fake field goal, because it was a makeable field goal and we had them believing we were going to kick it,” Talley said. “But we had fought so hard to get back into the game, and I felt we had to shoot every bullet. That was as big a momentum turner. It was very uplifting to our football team.”

The Lumberjacks had a chance to get back into the game in the beginning of the second half. Moses marched the SFA offense down the field, but turned the ball over on an interception to senior linebacker Marquis Kirkland. The pick proved to be the nail in the coffin.

Last week’s performance may have dispelled any lingering questions fans had about the team down the stretch, but that doesn’t change the fact that Villanova has to travel again to face FCS powerhouse Appalachian State. It will take another near-perfect performance to pull off the upset.

But with Szczur back in the fold, anything’s possible.