Behind John Robertson and a strong defense, Villanova took out Penn 24-8 on Saturday afternoon at Franklin Field.
The Wildcats gained 232 yards on the ground, while Robertson passed for a career-high 213 yards (he had 55 on the ground). It was the first time in 16 games that Nova has passed the 200-yard mark through the air. Joe Price also set a career high with 113 receiving yards — all in the first half — and seemed to catch almost everything thrown his way in the early going.
"What we do well is what they do well, which is stop the run," head coach Andy Talley said of his pre-game planning. "Can we now grow into this young quarterback figuring out his reads and knowing where to throw.
"We basically told him, ‘go to one, go to two and then run.' Sometimes he goes to one and runs, but you see when he runs it's a good thing. I really feel like the running game is what we're hanging our hat on. We get [Austin] Medley back, I hope, next week and now we've got two really good running backs who can boogie and get it done. It takes a little pressure off of John [Robertson] and John's the third back in the backfield."
Villanova's first play from scrimmage was a 9-yard pass to Price, who would go on to record a career-high 113 yards in the first half. That opening drive stalled as the 'Cats went to the run on the next two plays. On their second possession of the game, a pair of longer passes to Price helped move the Wildcats into the redzone with the touchdown coming on a strike to Norman White in the middle of the endzone.
"The way he threw the ball today, he would be a threat against anybody," Talley said in praise of his young quarterback.
White was playing in the game with a partially-torn labrum.
Penn made a few big plays, including a big 49-yard run by Jeff Jack to get the Quakers into scoring position. Villanova's defense settled down, however, and held them to a field goal attempt that was wide from 41 yards out.
Not long after, in the second quarter, the Wildcats would drive down the field with a few more big passing gains to Price and Earnest Pettway, but had to settle for a 41-yard field goal of their own. Mark Hamilton's kick was good from about the same spot as the earlier Penn attempt, and the 'Cats went ahead 10-1.
The Villanova passing game continued to make some progress early in the second half as Robertson tossed a 43 yard ball to Norman White to get into Penn territory before penalty flags killed the first drive of the half.
It was a 26-yard scramble by Robertson that would earn Villanova it's first points of the second half, however. WIth a big hole in the middle of the field, Robertson took off, narrowly evading the Penn defensive backs as he sprinted into the endzone.
Penn would answer back on their next drive though, with Jeff Jack breaking off a couple of big running plays to take the Quakers into Wildcat territoryu for the first time in the half as the game clock neared the end of the third quarter. Penn got their offense down to the Villanova 34 yard line, but stalled against pressure from the Villanova defense and ultimately turned the ball over on downs.
Penn was otherwise impotent on offense in the third quarter. Spencer Kulcsar would break off a 28-yard run to get the Quakers across midfield on their next drive, but the Nova defense responded again to force a punt after the big run.
Big plays were possible against the Villanova defense, but none were home runs, as defensive speed seemed to allow the 'Cats to track down their mistakes. They always settled down again after giving up a big play, however, and were able to get the important stops.
"There are 10 starters from the defense back, so even though they are young those guys have been around and they know that, hey, we’ve got to clamp down until the offense comes around," Talley said about his defensive unit.
Last year's CAA Defensive Rookie of the Year, Dillon Lucas had his first big game of the season, recording 6 tackles, including 1.5 tackles for a loss of 5 yards and half of a sack. The Wildcats sacked the Penn quarterbacks 4 times for a loss of 20 yards. Villanova cornerback Craig James lead the team with 7 tackles, 5 solo, while defensive lineman Rakim Cox was responsible for 2 sacks for an 11 yard loss.
The second half was more about the running game. With 11 minutes left in the game, Nova again moved the chains from deep in their own territory, this time with big running plays from Kevin Monangai and Gary Underwood. Monangai would later punch the ball into the endzone for his first score of the game and the 'Cats would open up a 24-0 lead. Defending the Villanova runner was his cousin, Kevin Ijoma.
Monangai finished the game with 109 rushing yards on 17 carries for a 6.4 yard average.
The Nova defense eventually gave up its first points in 91.04 minutes of game time when Penn quarterback Andrew Holland threaded a pass into the endzone with 3:14 left in the game. Moments later, he would do the same again, finding a receiver in the back of the endzone to convert for two points and make the score 24-8.
With the Wildcats getting back the ball, it was time for the second-string offense to get a series and Chris Polony took the helm to try close the game out for the 'Cats. Polony handed the ball off as the 'Cats ran down the last 3 minutes of clock to end the game, ultimately taking a knee from the victory formation with 43 seconds left. Polony did not record a passing attempt in the game.
Perhaps most importantly for Villanova, the Wildcats haven't turned the ball over since they opened the season against Temple.
"We stayed away from the interceptions and we haven’t fumbled, so I’m happy that we won the turnover battle," Talley said. "We lost the turnover battle against Temple and the score got out of hand, so they seem to be in that mode, but they’re still making penalties which is very frustrating but I hope that improves."
Villanova committed six penalties, costing them 52 yards in the contest. That was offset by the Quakers committing six of their own for a loss of 54 yards.
Penn's defense gave Villanova everything they had, but the Wildcats had too much speed, and Robertson made good decisions throwing the ball to keep the chains moving. If nothing else, the game should give the Wildcats some confidence in the passing game going into the heart of CAA conference play and give opposing teams one less reason to load up the box against the Villanova rushing attack.
Norman White will continue to play, but might be limited with his torn labrum to obvious passing situations in an attempt to spare him from further injury. That would limit the amount of blocking he would need to do downfield.
Next up, the Wildcats travel to Orono to take on the Maine Black Bears, who lost to Albany at home, 30-20, this weekend.