The Liberty Flames’ confidence burned brightly going into Saturday’s game. It was eternal, and wasn’t going to be extinguished by the rough weather conditions and downpour that plagued most of the day. Besides, they had overcome greater things in the past that go beyond rainfall. They upset top-5 ranked Coastal Carolina, then they came back to beat James Madison on the road for the program’s first ever playoff win. There is no doubt that they peaked at the right time. They had a lot to be proud of, their fans too. In fact, Liberty sent 23 buses of fans to pack the north side of Villanova Stadium. For the Flames to die down, they needed to be put out by a force much greater than their own. Today, they met that force, a team that has been battle-tested again and again throughout the season.
The Wildcats were off to a nightmarish start. Liberty’s Alpha Jalloh weaved through Villanova’s kickoff team and took the opening return 72 yards to Villanova’s 27-yard line. Missed tackles and the inability to wrap up allowed Jalloh to getaway and extend the return. A 21-yard pass from Josh Woodrum to Darrin Peterson set them up with a first-and-goal. A few plays later, the Flames would score the first touchdown of the game with an outside run by quarterback Josh Woodrum.
Villanova would take over, but feel the heat of Liberty’s defense right away. They made their presence known by forcing John Robertson to fumble on the first play of the game. Poppy Livers would recover it, but the Wildcats would go three-and-out for the drive. On the following possession, Liberty would convert a fourth-and-one that helped keep the drive alive. However, on the next set of downs, they would not find the same success. On third-and-long, an incomplete pass forced a fourth down situation. Liberty sent out kicker John Lunsford, who has nailed long field goals with ease, to attempt a 50-yard field goal. Lunsford made the kick to put Liberty ahead, 10-0.
Villanova would have back-to-back empty-handed drives that sent shockwaves of panic throughout the home crowd. On the following play, Woodrum looked to go deep to Peterson, but Villanova’s defense had other plans. Joe Sarnese cut in front of Peterson and was able to snag the ball, reminding the Villanova faithful not to worry. Feeding off the momentum of the defensive play, Villanova put together their first real successful drive of the game. The Wildcats were able to pull together a string of first downs before Kevin Monangai fumbled the ball away.
Liberty would look to their dynamic wide receiver, Peterson, for a 48-yard gain that brought them a first-and-goal. It was first called a touchdown, but thankfully was overturned due to him stepping out of bounds at the five-yard line. Villanova’s defense came up big, holding their ground against the Liberty offense. The Flames would take and make the field goal, extending their lead to 13-0.
Finally, the sleeping giant awoke. After an offensive penalty put them in a second-and-18 situation, Robertson looked deep to Kevin Gulyas, who caught it in stride. Gulyas picked up 87 yards, before the defense caught up to him before he could score. A couple of plays later, Robertson ran the ball outside for Villanova’s first touchdown. On the ensuing kickoff, Liberty returner Jalloh, fumbled the ball away. It was recovered by T.J. White at the 16-yard line. On their first play of the drive, Austin Medley took it up the gut for a 14-yard gain. Andy Talley fed him the ball until he got the touchdown he deserved. The PAT was good, and Villanova took a 14-13 lead. The Wildcat sideline was invigorated with new life and Nova Nation’s cheers echoed through the stadium.
After forcing Liberty to punt, the Wildcats had a great opportunity to add one last score before the half. Instead, the opposite happened. Robertson was taken down by Toby Onyechi, what happened next was a little fuzzy. Robertson appeared to have released the ball with what looked like a throwing motion, as opposed to just dropping it. The referees didn’t think he threw it and ruled it a fumble instead. Nick Newman scooped and scored for the Flames, putting them ahead 19-14 after the failed two-point conversion. The play was confirmed through official review, but I still believe Robertson threw it away, as opposed to fumbling it away. The 19-14 Liberty lead would hold until halftime.
The second half started out how the first did for Villanova – sloppy. After both teams traded three-and-outs, Liberty punted it away but it was touched by Jason Ceneus. The Flames recovered the live ball. Liberty launched another time-consuming drive that resulted in another field goal. They now had a 22-14 lead over Villanova. “We always say three points is not seven points,” said Villanova linebacker Don Cherry. “We may get put in bad situations but we bend and don’t break.” The third quarter would wind down with no additional scoring going into the fourth.
Liberty punted it away early in the fourth quarter. After a couple of runs by Kevin Monangai, Robertson went over the top again to Gulyas. He reeled it in, and this time would not be denied a touchdown. Gulyas was able to run it in before the defense was able to successfully close down on him. “It was basically one-on-one when their safeties flew down to stop the run,” said Gulyas. “John threw a great pass, it was almost like catching a punt. I just wanted to secure both catches and I did.”
On the two-point conversion to tie the game, Villanova ran the roll out play that worked against Delaware. This time, the receivers weren’t open. Robertson tucked and ran, escaping defenders’ clutches. He was eventually grabbed before the end zone, but willed his way in for the game-tying conversion.
After forcing a Liberty three-and-out, Villanova seemed to be in a great position to take the lead. Robertson had an excellent scramble that brought the Wildcats into Liberty territory. He looked to take off again, but this time, he fumbled it away. However, it would be okay. The defense stepped up once again, forcing another three-and-out. “Their defensive line was better than our offensive line in the fourth quarter,” said Liberty head coach Turner Gill. “And that was the difference.”
This time, Villanova looked to give Liberty a taste of their own medicine. The Wildcats diverged from their usual high-octane, fast-paced offense. They slowed it down, eating up as much time as they could. Villanova looked to their backfield trifecta of Robertson, Monangai, and Medley to get it done. They delivered. Villanova never passed once during the drive, and gained a solid 6-7 yards per run. As the Wildcats drove deeper into the red zone, they started to slow down. With 2:42 remaining, Villanova was faced with a fourth-and-one. To some people’s surprise, Coach Talley opted not to send out his field goal unit.
“My heart has been broken enough this year to know that there is no way I would have kicked a field goal,” said Coach Talley. “It’s John Robertson or field goal, Robertson or field goal – I’m going with John Robertson.”
Talley’s choice paid off, as the Wildcats grabbed the first down. Now with a first-and-goal, Villanova kept chipping away at the Flames. Each yard gained was one more nail into the coffin. Finally, Robertson punched it in for a touchdown off of a keeper. Chris Gough would nail the extra point, putting Villanova ahead 29-22 with just over a minute left.
Liberty would work their way to midfield, before letting go of one last heave for the end zone. The ball was tipped around before harmlessly falling onto the turf. The Wildcats finished the comeback, spending most of the game trying to catch up to the Flames. In the end, they came out on top, like they had done in other come-from-behind situations. “We have good senior leadership and a long-standing coaching staff that doesn’t panic,” said Talley.
Robertson finished with 317 total yards and three total touchdowns, one passing and two rushing. Kevin Monangai carried the ball 20 times for 102 yards. Kevin Gulyas only had two receptions, but they were the two biggest catches for Villanova’s offense. Gulyas finished with 157 receiving yards and a touchdown. Reggie Paris led Villanova with seven tackles, with one for loss.
The Wildcats resume action next week, when they take on Sam Houston State. Kickoff is on Saturday, December 13, at 1 p.m. Although, there is a chance it may be moved to Friday night, so we’ll keep a close eye on that. Sam Houston State upset #3 Jacksonville State. Since Villanova is the higher seed, they should be getting one more home game. If you ask Andy Talley, that’s everything.
“Name of the game in the playoffs is to be home.”