Villanova football travels to Norfolk, Virginia on Saturday as the Old Dominion Monarch's homecoming opponent. The 'Cats will face one of their toughest challenges against Taylor Heinicke, the top quarterback in FCS, and perhaps the subdivision's best player.
Last season, Old Dominion was new to the CAA football conference and would feature a freshman quarterback named Taylor Heinicke. Nobody had heard of him then, but he passed and rushed his way to a 37-14 win at Villanova Stadium on his way to carrying the Monarchs all the way to the playoffs in their inaugural CAA season. This season Heinicke set the Division I passing record in a 64-61 win over New Hampshire, passing for over 700 yards in a single game, and has become something of a national sensation.
For Villanova, a trip to Norfolk to play the #3-ranked Monarch's on Saturday may seem like a daunting task. They certainly won't go down without a fight, and they're pretty good at fighting.
The good news for Villanova is that the Wildcats have all of their wide receivers back from injuries this week. Dorian Wells returns to start in the slot, and Kenny Miles will also be available this week after sitting out the first six weeks of the season. It may be important to
Villanova has already doubled their win total from last season, winning four straight prior to last week. They aren't likely done winning this season either, but the remaining schedule contains some of their toughest challenges -- Old Dominion being the biggest among them,
"We hope that as we progress and start taking on some of the really tougher teams in the league, we're going to see the growth," head coach Andy Talley said to CBS Radio. "We need to knock off one of these guys along the way. Old Dominion, of course, the third ranked team in the country, is the assignment this week. So we're going to find out if we're moving closer to that mid-to-upper level team in the CAA."
Rightful or not, the ODU discussion starts and ends with Taylor Heinicke, a tremendous talent at quarterback who has been keeping the Monarch's offense among the sharpest in the subdivision. At 5-0, even when they have been down, they were never really out. He leads the CAA in practically ever passing statistic and is first nationally in passing, total passing yards and passing yards per game. Last year he had 233 yards of total offense against the Wildcats -- this season he is averaging 503.
This season, Villanova has a wunderkind freshman quarterback of its own in John Robertson. Robertson has been the CAA Rookie of the Week three times already this season and has been productive running the Wildcats' offense. Last week in a losing effort against Richmond, he passed for 308 yards (a career high) and rushing for 117 yards. He became the 15th quarterback in Villanova history to have a 300-yard passing game, and the first since Chris Whitney passed for 322 against Maine in 2010.
The Wildcats had 460 yards of offense last week in a season-high performance. Robertson accounted for 425 yards of that effort, the fourth-highest by a Villanova player ever, but the 'Cats turned the ball over four times and were outscored 14-3 in the second half.
Largely thanks to their allowing UNH to score 61 points a few weeks ago, the Monarchs come into the game ranked near the bottom of the CAA in scoring defense. They have allowed opponents to score 28.4 points per game against them and CAA opponents have scored an average of 49 points. In CAA games only, the Monarchs are near the bottom of the barrel in all defensive statistics, but taking their non-conference schedule into account would put them near the middle of the pack.
Villanova has to hope that they play more like a bottom-rung defense this weekend to help them keep pace with ODU's scoring machine. Keeping pace may be the only way to have a shot at beating Old Dominion. Heinicke is a mobile quarterback who can find receivers on the run and can beat defenses that blitz heavily. He can also make plays with his feet if you give him a lane to run in.
The ODU running game was on display against Richmond two weeks ago, but they are a great passing team, regardless. Villanova, meanwhile, is a run-stopping defense that may fare better against some of the CAA's other elites. That said, the 'Cats aren't as likely to be as thoroughly outplayed in the trenches this weekend -- Old Dominion has some strength on the offensive line, but no CAA line is as dominant as Richmond's.
Rakim Cox and the rest of the Villanova defenders will be charged with breaking up the pocket and getting to Heineke to try and slow him down. It's a big task, but it will make things easier for the secondary if they can find some success rushing the passer. Though Dillon Lucas was among the leaders in tackles for loss for the 'Cats this season, he doesn't appear on the defensive two-deep this week, replaced by Pat Haggerty.
Talley announced yesterday that Lucas will miss 2-3 weeks with a shoulder injury. His replacement has been receiving a lot of playing time in the linebacker rotation this season, however, and should be ready to play.
Similarly, Villanova needs to be able to lean on their own running game this weekend.
"We threw for 308 yards and rushed for 152," Talley noted after the Richmond game. "That's not really our game. It's a little too much pressure for [Robertson] early in his career to have to do that, since that's not really the way we play in practice. I think, had we been able to run the ball a little more we would have taken a little more pressure off of John."
Robertson can find his receivers if needed, but the entire weight of the offense can't be resting on the shoulders of the freshman quarterback. That is the sort of scenario that allows a young signal-caller to make mistakes and turn the ball over.
The ground game is the heart and soul of Villanova football. Though they often line up in a spread formation, the Wildcats have always prioritized running the ball, whether it was Matt Szczur taking a direct snap in the Wildcat package or QB-draws and hand-offs to the tailbacks, Villanova's offense has traded on rushing success for the past few years -- this season is no different.
If the 'Cats can establish the running game against Old Dominion and find the endzone at a decent clip, things could get interesting down in Norfolk. The defense will try to hold the nation's highest scoring FCS offense under 20 points, but Old Dominion will make big plays and try do do much better -- chances are that they will. Nova's offense will have to make up the difference to keep the game manageable.
Villanova's defense will likely be the best that ODU has seen so far this season, but the weakness of this unit is the passing game, especially against a team that can protect their quarterback like Richmond did last week. If they can break down the pocket against the Monarchs they might be able to slow their attack, but smart money would bet that ODU still hangs a few points on the board.
The game really comes down to how well ODU can stop the run. If they can take away the running game and force Robertson to throw the ball, it will put a lot of pressure on him to make plays -- and that can lead to turnovers and mistakes. The 'Cats can't afford either of those things.
This is a tough one for the Wildcats, but regardless of the result, the season is far from over. The 'Cats will look for three more wins in the next five games to hit the magic number of seven. This week may be the least-likely of the next five to be a win, however.