Never count this team out. For weeks the demise of Villanova football has been spoken from fans and pundits alike. Eulogies for Villanova’s playoff hopes rang out from the Stadium to fan blogs across the internet (myself, admittedly, one such eulogizer). Yet on Saturday night, Villanova football reminded us all that this season is far from finished by upsetting the ninth-ranked Richmond Spiders in dramatic fashion. As is Homecoming, Senior Night, and de facto playoff all in one was not enough, the fans who braved the cold at Villanova Stadium were rewarded with a last-minute, game-winning touchdown that resounded across the FCS world.
It was just two weeks ago that Richmond was on a seven game winning streak, undefeated in FCS play, and ranked in the top five for the first time in Spider history after defeating James Madison with ESPN College GameDay in town. Yet Saturday beheld such defeat and disappointment unseen in Richmond since the Confederate capital fell in the Civil War. Union General Ulysses S. Grant was blushing in his grave at the way Coach Andy Talley strategically attacked and outflanked the mighty men from Richmond. Honors should befall Zach Bednarczyk and Kevin Gulyas first and foremost for their game-winning connection in the endzone, but it was the entire team which truly deserves to be recognized for their valiant play in the face of playoff elimination.
It started out ugly: the Wildcats opened with two punts followed by a fumble. The Spiders subsequently fumbled as well, this time deep in the red zone, after their missed field goal attempt. Yet on a night with the wind whipping hard off the Main Line and temperatures dropping into the 40s, things started to heat up on the field when Richmond converted the Villanova turnover into a touchdown. On the very next drive, Villanova responded with a touchdown of its own: a Bednarczyk-to-Gulyas connection in the last minute of the first half that foreshadowed the last play of the second half.
After halftime, Villanova wasted no time in breaking the 7-7 tie, as the Wildcat special teams recovered the Spiders’ kick return fumble and converted it into a go-ahead touchdown the very next play. Bednarczyk, however, was not able to take advantage of the interception Richmond quarterback Kyle Lauletta threw next drive, but Lauletta was able to orchestrate a 12-play, 80 yard touchdown drive to bring the score to 14-14 going into the fourth quarter.
With ten minutes left in the game the curtains opened, and drama fitting for a final act unfolded. The Main Liners had the Richmonders on their heels to the 34 yard line, but a scrambling Bednarczyk fumbled at midfield and the Spiders recovered with a short field to work with. Three minutes later an otherwise quiet Jacobi Green ran it in to take the lead. As the Spiders lined up for the extra point, Villanova’s special teams again stepped up. This time heeding the advice of the raucous student section’s recommendation to block that kick, which they did to keep the score 20-14.
With five minutes to work with, Villanova inched downfield. After converting two third-and-longs along the way, the game came down to one play when Bednarczyk found himself in a fourth and seven situation on the Richmond 12, down six with mere seconds to go. He dropped back and slung a bullet to a crossing Kevin Gulyas, who fell just inside the blue endzone to tie the game. Kicker Gerard Smith, who had made just one of his last five field goals, kicked the game winning extra point with heroic swagger and the season-defining win was sealed when the defense swatted down Richmond’s desperate Hail Mary attempt.
This win has, above all, allowed us to analyze the chain of events that must happen to vault Villanova into the FCS playoffs for the fourth year in a row. The two wins that needed to happen on Saturday—Villanova over Richmond, and William & Mary over Towson—both occurred, leaving the Tribe alone atop the league with one win, and three teams tied in second with two wins. This Saturday, Villanova needs to do take care of business itself on the road against James Madison, and Richmond needs to beat William & Mary, both likely scenarios. Such events would award Villanova co-champion of the CAA, but the automatic bid would go to the highest ranked team in the Sagarin computer index, assuming the team is not chosen for an at-large bid.
Whether or not Villanova wins on the road this Saturday, and whether or not they make the playoffs, it must be recognized how amazing of a season this has been. It began with a close road loss to FBS UConn, and after exciting wins against ranked Fordham and rival Delaware, the only question remained was whether Villanova would snag a number one seed in the playoff bracket. When John Robertson, last year’s Walter Payton Award winner for best FCS football player, hobbled off the field in that game never to play college football again, the season was all but doomed. Yet despite the historic defeat to Penn, this team has rattled off four wins in the last five games to stay playoff relevant. Bednarczyk and Gulyas have honed their games to rise up from the ashes of a doomed season like a phoenix of yore. Respect is due to Villanova football. So while a conference co-championship and playoff berth would be a proper send-off for the seniors, whatever happens on Saturday should be saluted as the valiant effort it was.