BY ROCK HOFFMAN
College Football Editor
Villanova, PA – The Friday night lights burn intense when it comes to playoff football and that was the case as No. 5 Villanova held off No. 24 Holy Cross 21-16 in an NCAA FCS second-round playoff game on Goodreau Field at Villanova Stadium. Leading 14-0 at halftime, the Wildcats (10-2, 7-1 CAA) saw the Crusaders (10-3, 6-0 Patriot) control the second half and nearly pull off the upset.
"Wins are hard to come by," said Villanova head coach Mark Ferrante after his team won its first playoff game since 2016 and advances to the quarterfinals for the first time since 2014, "it's survive and advance this time of year. Everybody you play is going to be really good and they were."
"It was tough, it's not going to go your way every time," said Holy Cross quarterback Matt Sluka whose team scored the school's first-ever playoff win last week over Sacred Heart, "we learned that [tonight]. I think we have a lot of work to do for next year but it's a good stepping stone. So, even though we lost I still feel good about it."
Villanova's Justin Covington had a pair of second-quarter touchdown runs, the first was set up when Amin Black tipped a pass by Sluka, Ethan Potter came down with the ball and returned it to the Crusaders' 43. Covington punched it in from the two-yard line on fourth-and-goal.
Just before the half, Covington bulled in form seven yards out after the 'Cats matriculated the ball down the field from their own 21. The key to the drive was one play before the score when Wildcats' quarterback Dan Smith found Qadir Ismail for a 24-yard gain on third-and-14.
Not discouraged by being down 14 points or missing a field goal on the final play of the first half, the Crusaders marched down the field on the first series of the third quarter. Mixing the pass and the run, they scored when running back Jordan Fuller threw a jump pass to tight end Sean Morris.
On the ensuing kickoff, Villanova's TD Ayo-Durojaiye fumbled. After a video review, the ball belonged to Holy Cross but on third-and-one at the 'Cats three-yard line, Peter Fallon and Forrest Rhyne, the CAA Defensive Player of the Year, knocked Sluka back for a one-yard loss. The Crusaders would make it 14-10 on a 22-yard field goal by Derek Ng.
With the ball back in his hands on the next kickoff, Ayo-Durojaiye atoned for his fumble with a 55-yard return.
"Adversity comes every game," said Ayo-Durojaiye, "so that was my opportunity to respond."
On the second play of the series, Smith somehow spun out of a scrum in the backfield and went 19 yards to the Crusaders' 14. From there, Jalen Jackson scored and it was 21-10.
After the teams traded punts, Holy Cross went on another long, time-consuming drive with the result a three-yard run by Sluka, who had accounted for 44 yards – both running and passing - on the drive which had started at the Crusaders' 36. However, a two-point conversion try that would have brought Holy Cross to within three failed when a pass by Sluka was tipped by Mike Ruane and intercepted by Jared Nelson.
On their next possession, Villanova got one first down before punting it back to Holy Cross. Nathan Fondacaro boomed a 53-yarder which resulted in a touchback. Holy Cross had just under four minutes and three timeouts to go 80 yards. Sluka quickly got them to the Villanova 42-yard line but Ty Trinh and Black broke up successive passes including one on a post pattern that would've been a touchdown. Sluka threw an incompletion on third down and then on fourth down, the 'Cats defense quickly forced him from the pocket with Malik Fisher and Jake Green stopping him well short of the first down.
Villanova ran out the final two minutes to survive and advance.
"We're fighting to stay together," said Rhyne, who had a career-high 21 tackles. "A lot of teams aren't able to come into the office every day, and still be together, and still play but we are. So, we're fighting for that and we want to continue playing."
The Wildcats will host South Dakota St. in a quarterfinal game on Saturday at 2 PM.