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VILLANOVA, Pa. (AP) — After coming down with the flu at the worst possible time, quarterback Jared Johnson was quarantined in his hotel room for 36 hours by his coaches.
They let him out just in time for him to lead Sam Houston State into the FCS semifinals.
In a wild, back-and-forth quarterfinal matchup at Villanova Stadium on Saturday, Johnson threw for 303 yards and three touchdowns, and orchestrated the game-winning fourth-quarter touchdown drive, to propel the Bearkats to a 34-31 win over sixth-seeded Villanova.
"He came in and threw the ball very well," Sam Houston State head coach K.C. Keeler said. "I don't think he ran as well as he has in the past — probably because he has the flu. That's the time of year it is. It's survival of the fittest."
TCU transfer LaDarius Brown was Johnson's main target, finishing with 174 receiving yards and two touchdowns for the Bearkats (11-4), who move on to play at second-seeded North Dakota State, a 39-32 winner over Coastal Carolina, in the semifinals next week.
Chris Gough missed a game-tying 51-yard field-goal attempt with 34 seconds left for Villanova (11-3), which was without the services of star quarterback John Robertson, a Walter Payton Award finalist and one of the best players in school history.
Robertson suffered a concussion last week and told his coaches before the game that he couldn't play. That opened the door for senior backup Chris Polony, who threw for 228 yards and a touchdown and ran for 87 yards and two TDs in his first start since 2012.
"He's a real man," Villanova head coach Andy Talley said of Polony. "He could have complained and been a problem guy and tried to transfer. . It's a beautiful story, really. He's a great kid."
The Wildcats looked to be in good shape when Polony scored on a 1-yard sweep to give Villanova a 31-27 lead with 7:15 remaining.
But the Bearkats took the lead right back three minutes later with a 10-play, 75-yard TD drive capped by a 1-yard plunge by Jalen Overstreet.
"When we put that final touchdown in, that's when a championship team steps up and gets it done defensively," Talley said. "We just let them move the ball too quickly on that last drive."
After Overstreet's go-ahead TD, Villanova had enough time to tie or win the game. But the Wildcats' drive stalled at the 29-yard line before a delay-of-game penalty pushed back Gough's field-goal attempt, which went wide left as the Sam Houston State players rejoiced.
After the game, Talley admitted he probably would have gone for it on fourth-and-long if Robertson had been healthy to avoid running into the kicking problems that have plagued the Wildcats throughout their otherwise exceptional season.
"I would have to say the kicking game this year was probably the worst I've ever seen at the school," said Talley, who just wrapped up his 30th season at Villanova.
With the Bearkats leading 17-16 at the half, Johnson opened the second half with a 66-yard touchdown strike to Brown.
Brown also caught the game's first TD to give the visitors a 7-0 lead less than four minutes into the contest, and generally terrorized Villanova's cornerbacks throughout the afternoon.
"I don't think there's a better wide receiver in the country right now," Keeler said.
The Wildcats tied the game at 24-24 with 9:36 left in the third quarter when Kevin Monangai found a big hole up the middle for a 58-yard TD run and Polony connected with Kevin Gulyas in the back of the end zone for a two-point conversion.
Monangai finished with 166 rushing yards on 27 carries to close his Villanova career in impressive fashion. But it was Polony who really impressed his teammates in his final collegiate game. In the first half, the senior led 90- and 99-yard touchdown drives capped by big plays in each, the first a 54-yard pass to Poppy Livers and the second a 36-yard run of his own on a fourth-down play.
Johnson had a big first half too, throwing a 4-yard TD pass to Gerald Thomas early in the second quarter to put the Bearkats ahead 14-13.
For the game, the sophomore quarterback completed 22 of 27 passes — all while trying not to throw up.
"It's great to win and great to get to the final four," said Keeler, the former Delaware head coach who had many family and friends in attendance for his emotional return to the East Coast. "Our kids are excited. They just love to play."
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