By David Coulson
Executive Editor/Managing Partner
College Sporting News
PHILADELPHIA — You don't survive a 44-year career as a college football coach without having your mountaintop experiences.
For Villanova coaching icon Andy Talley, that Mt. Everest moment came in Chattanooga, TN. at the end of the 2009 season when he and his Wildcats walked out of Finley Stadium with an NCAA Division I national championship.
But most of the young men who celebrated that crowning moment in the Football Championship Subdivision have graduated, leaving Talley and his veteran staff to contemplate the other side of the game — rebuilding the proud Villanova program back towards the top.
"It's my 44th year in coaching," Talley said following the Wildcats' 42-7 loss to Temple in Thursday night's season-opening Mayor's Cup showdown before an announced crowd of 32,638 at Lincoln Financial Field. "If you stick around long enough, you're going to experience a valley every now and then."
But Talley is wily enough to also recognize talent and he knows it is only a matter of time before his gifted, but young team returns to be one of the elite squads in FCS.
The question for the Wildcats is how long will that journey take?
"What any coach is looking to do is figure it out and see how we can storm back," said Talley. "We lost some great players, but we have a lot of young, freshmen talent."
Recruiting coordinator Brian Flinn, who also coaches wide receivers at Villanova, has helped assemble some top-notch players again in the Wildcat program. But VU must find a way to replace the winningest senior class in school history.
Among the 12 starters that were missing from Thursday's lineup was 2009 playoff MVP Matt Szczur, now patrolling center field for one of the Chicago Cubs affliates and one of the top Minor League prospects in that organization.
Also absent was four-year starting tackle Ben Ijalana, the College Sporting News offensive player of the year and lineman of the year in 2010.
Ijalana was the highest selection among FCS players as a second-round pick in the recent NFL draft and is now learning how to protect legendary quarterback Peyton Manning.
Others who have disappeared from the Wildcat lineup are four-year starters Chris Whitney at quarterback and All-American guard Brant Clouser, along with defensive lineman Thomas Weaver, linebackers Terence Thomas and Marquis Kirkland and safeties John Dempsey and Fred Maldonado.
Thomas, Kirkland and Dempsey had all made various All-American squads during their tenure on the Main Line. Dempsey, Thomas and Weaver were all in NFL camps this summer.
It also didn't help that the Wildcats lost team captain and preseason All-American receiver Norman White to a broken foot last week — an injury that will end White's season.
White, a senior who has a redshirt season available, was Villanova's top returning playmaker on offense.
Villanova's lack of experience was painfully obvious to see as it went up against an improving Temple program in the opening game.
"That is the best Temple team we have seen," said Talley. "It is probably the best team we will see all year. We haven't seen anyone better in (FCS) play, maybe Appalachian State and Montana were close, but Temple is really good."
Villanova, despite its youthfulness, had some opportunities to make the game close in the first half.
The Wildcats had a chance to go ahead in the first period after Lawrence Doss ripped off a 28-yard gain for a first down at the Temple 27.
But redshirt freshman quarterback Dustin Thomas (11-of-25 passing for 109 yards and three interceptions, 17 carries for 59 yards, one TD and one lost fumble) barely missed an open Dorian Wells in the corner of the end zone and then misfired and was intercepted on another potential Wells touchdown three plays later.
Owl quarterback Mike Gerardi stepped around a safety blitz from Eric Loper and drilled Don Miller with a 35-yard scoring strike to give Temple the lead midway through the first quarter to convert the turnover into points.
Villanova offensive coordinator Sam Venuto said he was pulling out "smoke and mirrors" to try and get the Wildcats even in the second quarter.
After Temple's Brandon McManus — who won last year's Mayor's Cup game with a 43-yard field goal in the final seconds — missed a 48-yard kick inches wide to the right, Venuto went to his bags of tricks on the next play.
A perfectly executed reverse to Wells suddenly turned into a 44-yard pass play as Wells lofted a wispy spiral to Thomas, who had snuck out of the backfield on what amounted to a wheel route.
Thomas, after catching the ball in stride on the Villanova sideline, had one man to beat to turn the play into a game-tying touchdown. But cornerback Maurice Jones made a saving ankle tackle at the Owl 25.
When Thomas fumbled for the second time in three plays, Temple recovered to kill the drive and took advantage with a five-play drive to make it 14-0.
Bernard Pierce (20 carries, 147 yards, three TDs) made a pair of nifty moves to get to the outside and raced 19 yards for the score.
A 37-yard punt return by Matt Brown set up Temple for another touchdown late in the first half and Pierce dashed 22 yards through the middle to increase the Owls' lead to 21-0 just 46 seconds from intermission.
When Gerardi (14-of-20 passing for 235 yards and two TDs) made a perfect pass to Rod Streater for a 47-yard score on Temple's first drive of the second half, the game had completely gotten away from the Wildcats at 28-0.
"I knew the game could get away from us early and by not testing them at all, we let them off the hook," said Talley.
Pierce had another score from 20 yards out before the third quarter ended as the Owls converted another Thomas interception to grow the lead to 35-0.
The Owls dodged another bullet early in the fourth quarter when Thomas made a great fake and rumbled 31 yards to the Temple 17 before strong safety Justin Gildea saved a touchdown by forcing Thomas out of bounds.
Temple reserve quarterback Chris Coyer turned his first carry of the game into a 68-yard scoring sprint to increase the rout to 42-0, but Thomas showed some grit and determination on an 11-play, 71 yards drive.
Thomas made a pair of nice passes to Mikey Reynolds and another to tight end Joe Price to keep the possession alive and then rushed for 12 yards for a first down at the Owl four.
After barely avoiding a sack by throwing a pass out of bounds, Thomas smashed four yards on the read option to finally put the Wildcats on the scoreboard with just less than eight minutes to play.
It was a shining moment in a tough debut for the young quarterback, who had started all four years at St. Augustine Prep in Ventnor, N.J. from 2006-2009.
"I learned this isn't high school anymore," said Thomas. You've got to hold onto the ball and you can't make the same mistakes."
Thomas said he will be ready to watch the film from his debut in order to learn from those errors.
"It was exciting, being out there playing my first game of college football," said Thomas. "And I definitely look forward to playing more games to gain more experience."
Thomas also showed his competitive nature.
"I never like losing," Thomas explained. "It doesn't matter if I'm a first-year player, or a senior, losing is the worst feeling in the world."
One player who hasn't experienced many losses, let alone lopsided ones, during his four years at Villanova is All-American cornerback James Pitts. But Pitts, like Talley, knows that losing can sometimes be beneficial.
"It is good to take one on the chin once in awhile," said Pitts. "I think we'll bounce back from it when we play Towson."
That game on the road, Villanova's important Colonial Athletic Association opener, should be revealing.
"We can learn a lot from this and I would stay positive, especially with a young team," said Talley. "If this were an older team and they got beat 42-7, I'd be ripping some people up. We have a long season to go and a lot of things to look forward to."