The top two seeds in the playoffs. Two first-team All-Americans putting on a show. One exceptional NCAA Division I football championship game.
On a cold and rainy Friday night at Finley Stadium, in front of an announced crowd of 14,328, Villanova do-it-all Matt Szczur made one big play after another and led the No. 2-seeded Wildcats to a 23-21 win over top-seeded Montana, which lost in the title game for the second year in a row.
The speedy Szczur (pronounced like Caesar) finished with 227 all-purpose yards: 159 running, 68 receiving, 43 returning. He scored two rushing touchdowns and was named the game's most outstanding player.
"We have so many threats on offense that I didn't think I'd make this big an impact," Szczur said.
Villanova (14-1), which was making its first appearance in the championship game since the program was revived in 1985, also got a huge performance from Chris Whitney. The 6-foot-2, 230-pound quarterback rushed for 102 yards and completed 10 of 13 passes for 142 yards and a touchdown.
The Wildcats rushed for 351 yards and outgained the Grizzlies 493-425.
"We just made mistakes in the first half, and we got to the second half and we weren't making any more mistakes, and that was the difference in the game," Whitney said. "Our O-line dominated the D-line, and we were just able to come play our game."
Szczur, a junior All-American who was named the Colonial Athletic Association's offensive and special-teams player of the year, scored on fourth-and-1 at the Montana 3-yard line early in the fourth quarter to push the Wildcats' lead to 23-14 and all but seal the win.
The drive was just one part of a dominant final 33 minutes by the Wildcats, who delivered Andy Talley a national title in his 25th year as Villanova's coach. Montana led 14-3 midway through the second quarter, but the Wildcats responded with 20 consecutive points.
The Grizzlies' Jabin Sambrano caught a 53-yard touchdown pass from Andrew Selle with 1:07 remaining to cut the lead to 23-21. Montana tried an onside kick, but the ball rolled out of bounds.
Montana (14-1) was trying to go undefeated for the first time in the school's storied history and win the program's third national championship. Instead, the Grizzlies lost their third straight title game since winning the 2001 final.
"This hurts so bad, to be sitting here two years in a row with this same feeling. It just kills," Montana senior wideout Marc Mariani said. "We wrote a different ending, but stuff happens sometimes."
Facing a Villanova defense that came into the game ranked 103rd in the nation against the pass, giving up 240.8 yards per game, the Grizzlies were on the attack in the first half.
Mariani, who had seven catches for 172 yards in last year's championship game loss to Richmond, picked up where he left off at Finley. The senior All-American had nine catches for 178 yards by halftime but didn't touch the ball the rest of the game after Villanova adjusted its coverage.
"I saw a lot more blue in the second half than I did in the first half," Mariani said, referring to Villanova's uniform color.
The Grizzlies lined up for a short field goal on their first drive, but a botched hold killed the scoring chance. Brody McKnight whiffed on his kick attempt as the ball slipped out of holder Jeff Larson's grasp. The play looked very much like Lucy taking the ball away from Charlie Brown.
Villanova didn't have any hold problems on the ensuing drive, and the Wildcats took a 3-0 lead on a 23-yard field goal by Nick Yako.
Montana continued to move the ball on offense and scored on a 24-yard touchdown pass from Selle to Mariani, putting the Griz up 7-3.
Early in the second quarter, Villanova drove all the way to the Montana 10, but Whitney's second-down pass into the end zone was picked off by linebacker Shawn Lebsock.
On the third play of the ensuing drive, Selle hit Mariani for 56 yards down the right side. Selle later connected with Sambrano for a 4-yard touchdown and a 14-3 Montana lead with 6:48 left in the half.
Villanova needed something good to happen at that point, and Whitney and Szczur delivered. Whitney faked a pitch and ran 31 yards, and three plays later he floated a pass down the left side that Szczur caught for a 29-yard gain.
Two plays later, Szczur lined up in the wildcat formation and ran the ball in for a 4-yard score, giving the junior at least one touchdown in his last 11 games and all six of his career playoff games.
Yako missed the extra-point kick and the Grizzlies took a 14-9 lead into halftime. Selle was 17-of-23 for 232 yards at that point.
Just as it did in the second half of its 14-13 semifinal win over William & Mary, when the Wildcats trailed 10-0 at halftime, Villanova came back out and played much better on both sides of the ball.
After forcing a Montana punt, Villanova moved the ball to the Grizzlies' 4 on a 24-yard pass from Whitney to Szczur. Three plays later, Whitney hit tight end Chris Farmer for a 3-yard touchdown to give the Wildcats a lead, 16-14, it never relinquished.