By Michael McCarthy
As the second half started yesterday at Villanova Stadium, the Wildcats looked like anything but a Top 10 FCS team.
But linebacker Dillon Lucas, wide receiver Mike Burke and safety Joe Sarnese rallied the Cats for a 49-31 romp over James Madison in front of 10,781 on Parents Day.
Quarterback John Robertson (photo above), who played despite a broken left hand, had trouble running after taking a helmet to his right side in the first half. Wide receiver Poppy Livers also was hobbled and defensive end Tonah Kpassagnon was out with an injury left knee.
Lucas dropped JMU quarterback Vad Lee for a seven-yard loss on third-and goal from the Villanova nine-yard line, which forced the Dukes to settle for a 33-yard Connor Arnone field goal and a 24-14 lead instead of a touchdown and a 13-point advantage.
A few minutes later, Burke caught a 33-yard pass from Robertson on a first-and-19 at the Villanova 24-yard line to start what would become a huge second half for the Wildcats (2-1 overall, 1-0 CAA). Villanova scored on its first five possessions in the second half to avoid losing its league opener at home for the first time since 2006.
“I think that was one of the greatest catches ever at Villanova,” head coach Andy Talley said.
Sarnese had a big hand in that 35-point eruption. He picked off passes on back-to-back JMU possessions; the second gave the Wildcats a first down at the Dukes’ 4-yard line. Villanova scored touchdowns following both interceptions.
Talley called this a gut-check game for the Wildcats to see where there were after a 28-27 loss to Syracuse in double overtime in the season opener and 50-6 romp over Fordham two weeks ago. If the Wildcats truly are one of the top teams in the FCS, this was a game they had to win.
Villanova answered the call. It just took a half to do it.
After not turning the ball over in the first two games, Villanova coughed it up three times in the first half (two lost fumbles and a muffed punt) and the Dukes (2-2, 0-1) took advantage of that sloppiness to take a 21-14 lead into the locker room.
“We just weren’t playing together and had a couple of mishaps,” said Robertson, who played with a soft cast covered by a glove to protect his fractured left hand. “We knew we were moving the ball on them. We knew we were the better team. We just needed to play a better game.”
With his running game slowed, Robertson’s arm got the job done. The junior QB completed his first 15 attempts and finished 22-for-27 for 227 yards and four touchdowns, which tied a career high. Three of his TD passes came in the second half, two to tight end Ernest Pettway, as the Wildcats scored at least 49 points in consecutive games for the first time since 1997.
Meanwhile, Kevin Monangai and the rest of the backs picked up the slack in the running game. Monangai carried the ball 15 times for 129 yards and two scores, including a career-best 62-yard scoring burst in the second quarter. As a team, Villanova ran for 226 yards, 19 yards below their season average, and that was with Robertson getting just 19 yards on 11 attempts.