With a 4-game winning streak and a young quarterback who has established himself as the starter and a leader for the team, things have been looking up for Villanova football this season. The schedule for the Wildcats is almost perfectly structured for a team that needs to improve every week, with the toughest opponent always yet-to-come. Richmond is another example of that — after stepping up in competition from the Ivy League Penn Quakers to the Maine Black Bears, the 'Cats leap forward yet again to host the Richmond Spiders at home.
Richmond, like Villanova, has won an FCS national title in recent years (2008) and also struggled last season, going 3-8 overall and winless in the CAA. Both teams appear poised to improve on last season, and both enter the game with at least as many victories as they had all of last fall. Richmond's record stands at 3-2, with victories over Gardner-Webb, VMI and Georgia State, but they are coming off of a disappointing loss to Old Dominion, who defeated them 45-37 last weekend.
Despite the loss, their 37 point effort helped them claim third-place in the league for scoring offense, with 23 touchdowns and an average of 35.8 points per game. This will likely be the toughest offense the Nova defense will be asked to take on yet, and if Andy Talley is correct, they will have to find a way to hold the Spiders under 20 points. Villanova has not yet played a team from the CAA that ranks above it in scoring offense.
Also troubling is the fact that Richmond's offense operates better through the air than on the ground. Ranked just 9th in the conference in rushing (120 yards per game), they rate lower than a Maine team that was held to 11 rushing yards last week (though they gained 71 with 60 lost). Villanova's run-stopping defense needs to find an answer for the Spider's passing offense, ranked second in the CAA, second only to ODU (whose quarterback set an NCAA Division I passing record two weeks ago).
Ben Edwards has been the most dangerous target for Laub, averaging 97.2 yards per game for the Spiders, but Stephen Barnette has also picked up significant receiving yards. Tailback Kendall Gaskins and tight end Kevin Finney have both been passing targets in scoring situations on more than one occasion as well. It will be difficult to concentrate coverage on any one receiver on Saturday.
Villanova's secondary allowed Maine to pass for over 400 yards last weekend, so they will need to step up this week if the 'Cats are going to lean on their defense yet again. The defensive line and linebackers can help, however, by breaking through the pocket and either dropping Richmond's John Laub for a sack, or at least forcing him to throw the ball away. Defensive end Rakim Cox has classed the league in that category, leading all defensive players in both sacks and the complementary-category of tackles for loss (TFL). Villanova linebacker Devon Bridges is tied for fourth in sacks and the Wildcats' Dillon Lucas and Antoine Lewis are tied for second place for TFL.
If the Wildcats can disrupt a Richmond passing game that has been solid through five games so far, they will stand a fair chance. Richmond is a pass-first team, and while their running game averages 120.8 yards per game, that figure may be inflated from playing a few weaker opponents. Against Virginia they ran for only 28 yards and last week against ODU they were held to just 54 on the ground. Villanova's rushing defense rates a spot higher than ODU in the CAA.
Last week, Laub passed for 339 yards (against an ODU defense that gave up over 60 points to UNH) and ran for another 24 to lead his team in both categories. The Spiders seem to be using both Kendall Gaskins and Jovan Smith out of the backfield, but head coach Danny Rocco seems to get away from the running game very quickly when the Spiders are playing with a deficit. None of UR's players has averaged even 50 yards per game on the ground and on average they have been out-gained in rushing by their opponents this season.
As good as the Spiders are passing, their defense isn't as good at stopping it, ranking 90th in the nation in pass defense so far this season.They do have a high number of interceptions, but if an opponent can avoid turning the ball over, they should be able to gain yardage against this defense. Villanova's Norm White and Joe Price, along with Earnest Pettway seem to be a group of receivers that can exploit this passing defense.
If the 'Cats are able to establish a passing game early, they should also be able to run the ball late. Kevin Monangai enters this week as the CAA's leading rusher and seventh in scoring (third for touchdowns-only), while Austin Medley continues to work his way back from a hamstring injury and John Robertson rank ninth and tenth in the CAA for rushing as well. The Villanova running game has been a potent weapon for the Wildcats and no-doubt they will look to generate a significant amount of offense on the ground again this week.
This is the toughest game for Villanova since opening the season with Temple. Richmond is a team that has a more potent offense than any of the last four opponents and they are possibly one of the best passing teams that the 'Cats will have seen. Will Richmond get one over on the Villanova defense?
They are at least unlikely to go 30 minutes without putting a point on the board like some of Nova's other opponents.
Defense hasn't been nearly as strong for Richmond, however, so if the 'Cats can get a few stops and keep pace with their Virginian opponents, they can probably win again at home. They shouldn't be in over their heads with Richmond, but that doesn't mean that the game will be an easy win.