The postseason is like no other. The best teams come together until one is left standing. Along the way, they take their fair share of beatings and bruisings. The best will emerge from the rest.
For Villanova and Sam Houston State, their quarterbacks were at risk entering today’s game. On Thursday, Sam Houston State discovered that their quarterback, Jared Johnson, had the flu. Johnson was quarantined from the rest of his team for 36 hours. While he wasn’t fully recovered, he toughed it out and played for the Bearkats. On the other hand, Villanova’s John Robertson sustained concussion symptoms from last week’s win over Liberty. After undergoing concussion protocol, Robertson was cleared as the week went on. Yesterday, he participated in practice and engaged in contact drills, but he knew something still didn’t feel right. Before the game, Robertson told his coaching staff that he would not be able to play. He was not able to get any sleep and complained of headaches.
“That’s just the time of the year it is,” said Sam Houston State head coach K.C. Keeler. “It’s survival of the fittest.”
With Robertson out, Chris Polony came in. It was Polony’s first start since the Villanova-Temple game back in 2012. Robertson relieved Polony during the rough loss to the Owls and since then, he has never relinquished the starting role.
The first drive didn’t go well for the Wildcats. After going three-and-out, the Bearkat special teams unit blocked Villanova’s punt. Sam Houston State took over and quickly scored off of a two-yard touchdown pass by Johnson to LaDarius Brown. Villanova would get the ball back and gradually move the ball along. After a nice completion to Earnest Pettway off of a play action pass, Polony looked deep to Poppy Livers. Polony placed the pass perfectly, hitting Livers in stride as he ran to the end zone. Villanova would miss the extra point, trailing 7-6 in the first quarter.
Later in the quarter, Polony put on his best John Robertson impression. Just as Robertson has calmed the nerves of the Villanova faithful in the past, Polony did the same. On fourth-and-two, the Wildcats opted to go for it and dialed up a read option play. Polony kept it and found daylight, taking it to the end zone for a 36-yard touchdown run.
“It was awesome to see him step in like that and John was very supportive of him,” said Kevin Monangai. “I was just happy with the overall offensive performance.”
This time around, Chris Gough made the extra point, giving Villanova a 13-7 lead.
On the following drive, Sam Houston State meticulously pieced together a solid drive. It ate away at the clock but more importantly, it gained yardage. Crucial first down conversions on fourth-and-two, as well as on third-and-five, put the Bearkats in a first-and-goal situation. On the first play, the Wildcats bottled up Keshawn Hill, tackling him for a loss of one yard. On the subsequent play, Johnson called his own number but a holding penalty brought them back ten yards. On second-and-goal from the 16-yard line, Sam Houston State looked to send the ball through the air. Johnson dropped back and watched his pass for Derrick Edwards hit the turf. However, linebacker Joey Harmon came in with a late hit on Edwards, giving Sam Houston State a fresh set of downs and free yardage. A few plays later, Johnson found Gerald Thomas for the second touchdown of the game.
The Wildcats and the Bearkats traded unsuccessful drives, until a field goal by Sam Houston State’s Luc Swimberghe provided what seemed to be the last few points of the half. Villanova was left with 24 seconds, but continued to push forward. On the first play of the drive, a long pass to Lincoln Collins brought the Wildcats into enemy territory. A couple of plays later, Polony weaved through the defense, picking up the first down. Andy Talley called a time out with just one second remaining on the clock, allowing for a 46-yard field goal attempt for Chris Gough. Gough nailed the long field goal, sending the crowd into a frenzy. Villanova trailed 17-16 going into the half.
The Bearkats came storming out of the locker room to start the second half. A nice return by Gerald Thomas brought the ball to Villanova’s 36-yard line. However, an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Sam Houston State negated the long return. The referees finally put their foot down, tensions ran high throughout the game. On the first play from scrimmage, Johnson looked deep to Brown. Brown torched the much smaller Jason Ceneus and fought his way to the end zone.
“When I was out there I was thinking to go over the top and I could make this play every time,” said Brown. “The defense played like I thought they would.”
It wasn’t the first time that Brown won the one-on-one matchup whenever he went deep, the TCU transfer dominated his matchup with Ceneus. Villanova would not produce an answer until later in the third quarter, when Monangai took the ball up the gut for 58-yards for a touchdown. The play featured a fake jet sweep handoff that the defense fell for, giving Monangai the open seam in the middle. The Wildcats opted to go for the two-point conversion, as Polony found an open Kevin Gulyas tiptoeing the back of the end zone. The score was deadlocked at 24 going into the fourth quarter.
Villanova would go three-and-out to start the fourth quarter. On the ensuing drive, Sam Houston State would run the ball down Villanova’s throat. Keshawn Hill would run with ease through the Villanova defense, until the Bearkats were halted inside the red zone. Once again, Luc Swimberghe would take and make the field goal, giving Sam Houston State the lead.
Villanova fielded the short kickoff, starting at the 33-yard line. A 10-yard scramble by Chris Polony resulted in a first down. After a few plays, the Wildcats found themselves in a third-and-nine situation. The Bearkats sent in a rush for Polony. The senior quarterback danced around in the pocket, avoiding pressure as he started to roll out to his left. Before he crossed the line of scrimmage, he made a nice across-the-body pass to Anthony DeCamillo for a large gain and a first down. From there, Kevin Monangai carried the Wildcats to just outside the end zone. On third-and-one, the Wildcats went with a quarterback sweep. Polony ran for the corner, lunging in for a touchdown. Villanova now had a 31-27 lead with 7:15 left in the game.
The Bearkats had no problem with coming up with an answer. Keshawn Hill stood on the sidelines for the final Sam Houston State drive. They were in good hands, led by the rushing tandem of Jared Johnson and Jalen Overstreet. Overstreet had a bulk of the carries and did not have any problems with slicing through the Villanova defense. The former Texas Longhorn would cap the drive off by punching it in for a one-yard touchdown. With Overstreet’s score, the Bearkats reclaimed the lead.
Now with four minutes left in the game, the pressure was on Polony to deliver. The Wildcats have faced instances similar to this one many times before, “bend, but don’t break,” “down, but not out;” the less is endless. They faced trouble early in the drive, as they were challenged with a third-and-long. Polony rolled out to his left, ignoring the pressure around him, and found Poppy Livers for a big gain. Livers ran upfield, until the referees said he stepped out of bounds. The Wildcats moved deeper into Bearkat territory until they were stopped. Faced with a fourth-and-13, coach Andy Talley sent out his field goal unit for a 46-yard attempt. Chris Gough’s kick was just left of the uprights, but a delay of game penalty called for a redo. Now backed up for a 51-yard attempt, Gough’s kick had the distance but missed the mark. The Bearkats’ sideline erupted in joy as the referees waved the kick no good. Sam Houston State kneeled the clock out and celebrations began as the Wildcat fans and players walked quietly out of the stadium.
Chris Polony had an excellent game at signal caller, completing 13-of-24 passes for 228 yards and a touchdown. He also added 87 yards and a rushing touchdown off of 13 carries. Kevin Monangai rushed for 166 yards and a score off of 27 carries. Poppy Livers had four receptions for 96 yards and a touchdown.
For the Bearkats, Jared Johnson completed 22-of-27 pass attempts for 303 yards and three touchdowns. Keshawn Hill finished with 20 carries for 75 yards. LaDarius Brown racked up 174 receiving yards and a pair of touchdowns off of six receptions.
Sam Houston State will head up to North Dakota next weekend to take on the Bison. Villanova finishes the season 11-3.
“We are just proud of the way we took this program from a 2-9 season when we first came in to what it is now,” said Monangai. “We would’ve liked to have gone further but that’s the way things go sometimes.”