Most of Andy Talley’s 250 wins over 32 years at Villanova haven’t been as nerve-wracking as this.
He didn’t have to close his eyes whenever his team attempted to kick an extra point or field goal fearing the worst — and usually be right. He didn’t need his defense, which was being picked apart by a quarterback who seemed to move the ball at will, to come up with a big defensive stand at the end. And he didn’t need his quarterback, more adept at running the ball than throwing it, and a running back who missed half of last season to come through late to save the day.
But all that happened in Nova’s 26-21 win over the Lehigh Saturday, moving Talley past Lou Holtz into 26th place on the all-time list, as the Wildcats bounced back from a 28-7 opening game loss to Division 1 Pitt. Ironically, he didn’t realize he was on the verge of the milestone until they presented him the game ball afterwards.
“It's a nice round figure and it kind of goes along with my last year here to be able to be in that rare air that's with the guys with 250 wins,” said Talley, who announced Jan. 13 he’d be stepping down after this season, handing the reins over to longtime assistant head coach, Mark Ferrante. “I’ve been really blessed to stay at this school long enough with an administration and a group of athletes over time that could help you accumulate 250 victories.
“The head coach technically gets all the accolades, but it's really a group of people that make that right. “
His players were thrilled to have done their part. “I’m just happy we got it done for Coach Talley,” said Javon White, who ran for 155 yards and two touchdowns on 23 carries, as the Wildcats amassed 396 yards on the ground. “He’s done so much for this football program over his time here.
"He’s worked hard and he deserves it.”
As rewarding as it was the coach, it probably meant more for the 5-foot-11, 205 pound senior White, who broke his left fibula midway through last season at Towson and sat out the rest of the way. After playing sparingly his first two seasons, then red-shirting in 2014, he had come on as a junior to rush for 395 yards and two scores.
“It was tough sitting out,” said White, who credits former Nova back Kevin Monangai with teaching him how to “keep the faith” when things don’t go as planned, “but it’s all about moving forward.
“It feels good to be back out there.”
As for his big day in this one, he amassed 105 yards on just nine carries after intermission, including a career-best 47-yard burst on the winning drive which he capped with a fourth down plunge from the 2-yard line. White took it in stride.
“I’m not at all surprised” said White, whose two touchdowns matched his previous total. “It was simply a matter of time.
“After halftime, we buckled down and got right to business. I just had to be patient with the O-Line.”
And Talley had to be patient with his team, hoping they’d snap out of a first half 14-6 funk.
“You have to have the ability to fight back, and I liked seeing that because I don't know that about this team yet,” said Talley, who’s pleased with his team’s 7.6 rushing average but concerned the Cats managed just 56 yards in the air. “We have senior leaders. They’re not demonstrative. They decided to pull everybody up by their bootstraps. It was good to see.”
What wasn’t good to see were two extra points and a field goal veer off course, a situation Talley termed “almost embarrassing.” And he knows they can’t afford to have a team pick apart his secondary with a short passing game like Lehigh’s Nick Shafnisky did, though they managed to stop the Mountain Hawks’ late drive at the 16.
But if White can build on this one and quarterback Zack Bednarczyk can find some consistency throwing the ball, Talley’s final year might not turn out so bad.
Next comes Towson, a game which carries a little bit extra weight for White.
“I do have some revenge to get,” admitted White. “I’m looking forward to this game.”
So is Talley, who only hopes No. 251 comes a bit easier than this.