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Villanova drops 45-44 heartbreaker at Southeastern Louisiana

Dubbing themselves “road warriors,” the Villanova Wildcats (9-4) were cruising along with a 31-14 lead early in the third quarter at Strawberry Stadium in Hammond, Louisiana, on Saturday when their fortunes suddenly changed, resulting in a heartbreaking 45-44 loss to Southeastern Louisiana (8-4) in the opening round of the FCS playoffs.

Trailing by 17 points, Southeastern Louisiana quarterback Chason Virgil, who threw for an eye-popping 474 yards and three touchdowns in the shootout, led the host Lions on an eight-play, 90-yard drive, culminating in a 3-yard touchdown run by former Arkansas quarterback Cole Kelley — the 6-7 junior’s tenth rushing TD of the season — to trim Villanova’s seemingly insurmountable lead to 31-21 with 10:31 remaining in the third quarter. 

Four minutes later, Virgil threw a 29-yard touchdown strike to wide receiver C.J. Turner, a redshirt sophomore, to cut Villanova’s margin to 31-28. 

A 25-yard field goal by Bryce Broussard tied the game with a minute and half remaining in the quarter.  It was the redshirt sophomore’s seventh field goal of the season and his first since kicking a 24-yarder in a 52-13 rout of Houston Baptist in late October.

It was an anxiety filled back-and-forth contest the rest of way.

Appearing in the FCS playoffs for the first time since 2016, Mark Ferrante’s Wildcats responded with a go-ahead touchdown early in the fourth quarter when quarterback Daniel Smith connected on a short touchdown pass to junior tight end Todd Summers, capping an eight-play, 79-yard drive giving Villanova a 38-31 lead.  It was the second touchdown reception by Summers, who made four catches for 59 yards.

Six and a half minutes later, SE Louisiana’s Virgil found the end zone again, connecting on a four-yard pass to wide receiver Javon Conner, a 5-10, 170-pound redshirt junior from New Orleans, to again tie the thriller at 38 apiece.

Two minutes later, Smith, who threw for 283 yards while accumulating 373 total yards, including a 53-yard touchdown scamper in the second quarter, hit junior wideout Changa Hodge for a fifty-yard touchdown to again put the Wildcats ahead 44-38.  Villanova’s Drew Kresge missed the extra point, which later proved to be the difference in the game.

With 2:56 remaining in the see-saw battle, Virgil struck again — this time throwing an 8-yard touchdown pass to Turner, capping a quick 75-yard drive, to put Southeastern Louisiana ahead 45-44.

It still wasn’t over as Villanova, refusing to go quietly in the night, drove from its own 29-yard line to Southeastern’s forty with a minute and half remaining. 

Smith then appeared to throw the game-winning touchdown when freshman wide receiver Jaaron Hayek made a spectacular one-handed reaching catch in the end zone, but an offensive pass interference call negated what would have been Villanova’s go-ahead touchdown. 

It was the eleventh penalty called on Villanova.  SE Louisiana was only flagged three times the entire afternoon.

The Wildcats were subsequently stopped at the 39-yard line, a little too far out of field goal range — and the game was history.

Winning by the skin of their teeth, Southeastern Louisiana (8-4) advances to next week’s quarterfinal round where they will face sixth–seeded Montana (9-3) in Missoula.     

It was a wild and riveting game, to put it mildly.  The second half dramatics alone were worth the price of admission.  It’s too bad that somebody had to lose.

The crowd of 4,172 certainly got their money’s worth.

Darcy G. Richardson is a historian and the author of more than a dozen books. His latest is Loyola's Improbable Ramblers: 55 Years in the Making, available now on Amazon.

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