By Craig Haley, FCS Executive Director
Villanova, PA (Sports Network) - Appropriately, the Szczur's Palace sign at the top of Villanova Stadium unraveled during the fourth quarter of Villanova's 31-24, CAA Football loss to New Hampshire on Saturday afternoon.
Only "Szczur" was left showing.
That's who Villanova has missed for much of its season: All-America wide receiver Matt Szczur, who has been sidelined for nearly seven games with a high left ankle sprain.
The "Palace" wasn't showing on the sign, and by the end of New Hampshire upset, Villanova's defending FCS championship squad was closer to finding itself in this year's playoff outhouse than in a palace.
As if Delaware didn't have enough incentive to beat arch-rival Villanova next Saturday, the about-to-become No. 1 Blue Hens now have a chance to win the conference title and keep the Wildcats out of this year's playoffs. The air is quickly coming out of the defending champs' season, with last weekend's stunning loss at Rhode Island followed by a loss to UNH, which ended a 15-game home winning streak.
A win by Delaware in Newark on next Saturday's final day of the regular season would drop Villanova (6-4, 4-3) to 6-5 and basically crush the Wildcats down to their collective soul. No team with five losses has ever received an at- large bid.
"Delaware's a big game, and we're just going to approach it as a big game," Villanova coach Andy Talley said. "I don't even know how you can talk about playoffs, I really don't. What we need to do is just go play, let it hang out and we'll see what happens. We had our opportunities. We had opportunities last week and we had opportunities this week. You've got to start playing like a playoff team, and I didn't get that feeling today."
New Hampshire (6-4, 4-3) is in a similar situation as Villanova, but with a brighter outlook. Coach Sean McDonnell's squad will be back home in Durham next Saturday to finish the regular season against Towson, the CAA's last- place team. A win figures to lift UNH into a seventh straight playoff appearance.
"A lot of credit to the resiliency of my team," McDonnell said after it closed its series deficit to 11-10. "You don't know how guys are banged up, not only going into this game but the kids we lost during the game. And we found ways to stay the course.
"Great win, on the road in the CAA and we live for another day."
Talley was looking for someone to wear a cape on Saturday, and it might have to be Szczur next week. The most valuable player in last year's national championship game, who made Villanova so dangerous by running the Wildcat offense, has told Talley that he plans to play against Delaware.
"We just weren't clean and quality and moving through things the way you should be in your 10th game of the year. Just out of sync a lot," Talley said. "You know, you're almost waiting for Superman to step in and make a big play for you. Well, you know what, there's no Superman. Right now, you have to be a clean, consistent football team. We've been up and down all year. Today was a pretty frustrating game because it was a very, very important game."
New Hampshire's aggressive play put Villanova into a double-digit deficit four times, but 'Nova got within striking range to stay at the start of the fourth quarter. Down 31-17, 'Nova faced 4th-and-2 from the UNH nine-yard line, only to benefit from a pass interference penalty, which moved the ball to the two, from where quarterback Chris Whitney took in his second touchdown run to close the deficit to 31-24 with 14:50 left to play.
But Villanova came up empty on its final three possessions into UNH territory. The final drive got to the visitors' five-yard line in the final 20 seconds. After Whitney threw a pass out of the UNH end zone, he was stripped of the ball by defensive end Brian McNally in the backfield and fellow defensive end Cody Muller fell on it with 12.4 seconds left.
"I didn't even see him coming," lamented Whitney, who threw for 192 yards and rushed for 88 more.
"We didn't play as clean as we could on defense, but I think we just made plays when it counted," UNH senior cornerback Dino Vasso said.
Villanova lost to William & Mary by the same 31-24 score on Oct. 2, and like that game, it never led against an opponent that was more deserving of a win.
New Hampshire had no problem with taking advantage of Villanova's listless start by jumping to a 10-0 lead in the game?s first six minutes. Sophomore running back Dontra Peters (12 carries, 157 yards) took a pitch from R.J. Toman and sprinted around right end for a 51-yard touchdown run to open the scoring with 10:49 left. Then after Villanova's Angelo Babbaro muffed the ensuing kickoff, Mike Perkins recovered the ball on the 'Nova 16 to set up A.J. DeLago's 22-yard field goal at the 9:09 mark.
Villanova, which controlled over 38 minutes of game clock, cut into its deficit by scoring on the type of drive not common in the big-play era: 17 plays and 86 yards long, stretching 8 minutes, 41 seconds. Babbaro capped the drive on a fourth-down pitch, cutting back between defenders for a 10-yard touchdown with 10:40 left in the second quarter.
UNH, though, always had answers for Villanova. Toman skillfully led a no- huddle drive that McDonnell called the best of the day, finishing it off with a 10-yard keeper for a 17-7 lead with 8:55 left in the quarter.
After Villanova place-kicker Mark Hamilton, who has replaced the struggling Nick Yako, made his first career field-goal attempt - 29 yards - to pull 'Nova within 17-10 with 5:54 left, UNH again scored quickly on its next drive. Toman found Joey Orlando down the middle for a 56-yard touchdown pass that was as pretty as the autumnal day.
"We were playing catch-up too much during the day," Talley said. "We're not a catch-up football team. We needed to be more on schedule than we were. We needed to play a little better defense. Offensively, like I said, we put a ton of yards up - 450 - but only 24 points. We got a field goal blocked. That's not a very good prescription for winning."
"I just expected more out of our team."