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Villanova 35, UMass 17

Minutemen left at a loss by Wildcats

By Jeff Wagenheim
Globe Correspondent / November 6, 2011

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AMHERST - For University of Massachusetts alumni returning for homecoming weekend, it was no prettier than the mangled landscape of tree limbs they saw lying beneath the remnants of fall foliage on their journey to campus.

Yesterday’s 35-17 loss to Villanova before 10,012 at McGuirk Stadium was a miniscule matter in comparison to the unseasonable snowstorm that crippled Western Mass. for much of the week. But as football games go, it was a calamity for the Minutemen.

The game unfolded in a way both familiar and unfamiliar to Villanova (2-8, 1-6 Colonial). The Wildcats have gotten used to playing in blowouts, but the previous four Saturdays they’d been on the other end of the score, getting pounded by 16, 23, 24, and 30 points to extend their losing streak to five games.

Villanova fell behind yesterday, too, turning the ball over on downs after an efficient opening drive into UMass territory, then allowing the Minutemen (5-4, 3-3 against CAA teams) to march 62 yards for a field goal. But the Wildcats took charge in a 28-point second quarter, taking advantage of UMass turnovers on three straight possessions.

“It’s disappointing,’’ said UMass coach Kevin Morris. “We’ve talked about it all season: Turnovers are the key. Simple story.’’

Redshirt freshman quarterback Brandon Hill, starting in place of injured Kellen Pagel, was responsible for two of those giveaways. After Villanova recovered an Alan Williams fumble on the UMass 13 and made it 7-3 on the first of three touchdown passes by freshman Chris Polony (20 of 31, 183 yards), Hill overthrew Julian Talley on the first play following the kickoff, and cornerback James Pitt made the interception. Villanova needed just three plays to go 48 yards, with Polony completing a short pass to Jamal Abdul-Rahman that the freshman took 30 yards down the sideline for the TD.

Hill, who began the season as the starter but was replaced by Pagel midway through the opener at Holy Cross, also was the starter in a romp over Central Connecticut as Pagel recovered from a concussion. This time, Pagel was out with an unspecified upper-body injury, leaving Hill to try to settle down a team trailing a cellar-dwelling opponent.

Instead, Hill (27 of 45, 300 yards, 1 TD) only made it worse. On the third play of the ensuing possession, he was again intercepted in Minuteman territory by Pitt, who later would add another pick, making him the first Villanova player in 21 years to have three in a game.

Villanova went 46 yards on nine plays to make it 21-3, with Austin Medley scoring his second touchdown of the game on a sweep around the right side.

“It definitely helped that the defense gave us the ball onside the 50 a few times,’’ said Polony.

UMass responded, however, as Hill was 3 of 3 for 38 yards and Jonathan Hernandez (20 carries, 99 yards) gained 31 during a 74-yard scoring drive. Redshirt freshman Matt Campbell converted his first collegiate carry into a 1-yard TD that, with the extra point, made it 21-10.

But Villanova was not done. After taking over at the Villanova 48 in part because UMass had to kick off from its 15 following a late hit on the extra point, Polony had five completions in a 1-minute-11-second march that climaxed with a 13-yard connection with Dorian Wells that made it 28-10 going into the locker room.

“We counterpunched them right away,’’ said Polony.

UMass did take the second-half kickoff and smartly go 74 yards in 11 plays to pull within reach on a 12-yard pass from Hill to Talley (11 receptions for 155 yards, both career highs). But Villanova held firm and, before the quarter was over, forced UMass into its season-high sixth turnover. Rakim Cox hit Hill in the pocket and forced a fumble that was recovered by the Wildcats. From the UMass 37, they then mounted a drive that essentially put the game away, getting a 7-yard scoring run by Lawrence Doss with 21 seconds left in the third quarter.

“Our little kitties,’’ said Villanova coach Andy Talley, “turned into Wildcats today.’’