Rob Daniels, Special to NCAA.com
BOONE, N.C. — Hail, Caesar. No matter how you spell it.
Villanova’s Matt Szczur, whose last name is pronounced like the ancient Roman emperors, ran for two touchdowns, threw for a third and caught a fourth in the first 20 minutes Saturday as the unseeded Wildcats claimed a 42-24 upset of top-seeded Appalachian State in NCAA Division I quarterfinals play.
Szczur, who missed seven regular-season games with a high ankle sprain, is a nominal wide receiver who ran Villanova’s offbeat offense by any means necessary. Many teams operate what they call the Wildcat, but few can do it with the legitimacy of these guys, who actually are Wildcats — at least in nickname.
Mountaineers head coach Jerry Moore, denied a bid to become the first coach to win 200 games at an NCAA school in North Carolina, didn’t try to pronounce Szczur. He just came to praise him.
“No. 4 is a terrific player,” Moore said. “He ran for it. He threw for it. He made a lot of big plays for them. You’re asking about the difference in the game? I’d say he made a huge difference today.”
Villanova, the defending NCAA champion, improved to 9-4 and will play in next week’s semifinals at Eastern Washington, which defeated North Dakota State, 38-31, on Saturday.
Szczur capped his day with the biggest score of the afternoon, a plunge from the 2 that restored the Wildcats’ 18-point lead with 5:22 left in the third quarter. Apparently stopped for little to no gain, he lunged the ball over the goal line to mute whatever momentum the Mountaineers had gained with a previous TD.
“I knew if I got close enough to the line and had enough grasp on the ball, I could lean a little bit further and try to get the touchdown,” Szczur said. “Our line had been awesome all game long. I knew I’d get at least one yard. The little extra lean helped me out a lot.”
For the day, he ran 16 times for 106 yards, caught five passes for 54 more and went 2-for-2 through the air for 58 yards.
Villanova entered the final week of the regular season at 7-4 and needed a win at then-No. 1 Delaware, to make the tournament field. The Wildcats got that and have been close to unstoppable since.
“As a 7-4 football team, we were a little bit unfulfilled,” head coach Andy Talley said. “We had some injuries and things that happened during the year. I just think we have a championship-caliber football team now. I think we can come from behind. We can fight through adversity.”
That came on Saturday’s third play, a 46-yard touchdown run by Appalachian’s Travaris Cadet. The Mountaineers — NCAA champions in 2005, ’06 and ’07 — had gone 72 yards in the game’s first 72 seconds. But it wouldn’t last.
Szczur, a fifth-round draft choice of Major League Baseball’s Chicago Cubs in June, put his team ahead for good when he took the direct snap from center and hit Norman White with a 54-yard touchdown pass. The toss wasn’t perfect, but White kept his cool and controlled it with one outstretched hand.
“I had pressure off the end and that’s why I got rid of [the ball] pretty fast and I threw it probably a little too hard, Szczur said. “Norm just tipped it up and ran for six. That was awesome.”
The play epitomized what Moore called one of the most complete teams he has seen in years.
“If they’re going to load the box, as they did on Norm’s touchdown, we’re going to go to that play,” said quarterback Chris Whitney, who got something of a break after a week during which nagging injuries kept him from practicing. “He can throw. He did get drafted for baseball.”
Less than five minutes later, Szczur broke free down the middle and Whitney, given ample time to throw throughout the game, hit him in stride for a 21-10 lead.
“[Give] credit to our offensive line,” said Whitney, who went 12-for-16. “They played unbelievably [Saturday]. [The Mountaineers] have an All-American defensive end, a very good linebacker and an All-American safety. Even when they were in the box, our offensive line got push on them. All day.”
Szczur’s 24-yard scoring run made it 28-10 with 5:17 left in the half, and Appalachian State was forced to play catch-up the rest of the way. It never got closer than 10.
“In this life,” Cadet said, “you get curveballs.”
The Villanova defense proved that occasional irrelevance of defensive statistics. In two playoff games, it has allowed 724 yards but only two touchdowns through the air. The Mountaineers ran 41 plays in the fourth quarter Saturday, but they needed every one. Once comfortably ahead, the Wildcats were quite content to permit intermediate gains in the name of avoiding the big hit.
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