Eric Hartline-US PRESSWIRE
As Villanova football takes a week off this Saturday, it is worth reflecting back on the season so far, to help project the final two games and put everything in context.
It's a winning season on the Main Line no matter what happens in the final two games on the schedule. The 'Cats were a miserable 2-9 last fall, and many predicted a much rougher path back to normal; instead of slogging through a long rebuilding year, Villanova fans are worried about making the FCS playoffs.
At 6-3, Villanova only needs one more win to match the regular-season record of the 2010 team that crushed powerful Appalachian State on it's way to the semifinals. This season, things a little more heat on the playoff bubble though, and while a 6-win team is still almost-certainly out of the running, a 7-win season presents no guarantees either.
The 'Cats will be a winning team either way, but in order to make the field of 20, the 'Cats may need to get to 8 wins, and still cross their fingers. Then again, with two weeks remaining, the Wildcats aren't even out of the CAA football title picture just yet.
They can no longer win out and guarantee a CAA title and a spot in the playoffs, but they need to win to have a chance.
While last season's team struggled to move the chains, this season, the Wildcats have been much more dangerous on offense. The 'Cats are ranked first in the conference in rushing offense and fourth in total offense. They are only middle-of-the-pack (6th) in scoring offense, however, and rank 10th out of 11 schools in passing offense.
That said, when the Wildcats do throw the ball they are among the most efficient offenses in the league, ranking 3rd, behind only Old Dominion (and the golden arm of Taylor Heineke) and New Hampshire.
Rather than running up scores, the Wildcats generally hope to execute long drives and take big chunks of time off the clock. That strategy is designed to keep the defense on the sidelines, so that they come in fresh and ready to run. It worked spectacularly against a highly-ranked Old Dominion team that just couldn't get into a rhythm with the Wildcats holding the ball for so much time.
Defense hot and cold
In three losses this season the defense looked ineffective. In six victories, they have looked absolutely dominating. Which Wildcat defense is the real deal?
Watching the unit miss tackle after tackle against Temple was not a performance that inspired much confidence, but in the weeks that followed, against Fordham, URI, Penn and Maine, the defense thrived, breaking up the pocket and stopping the run when needed. Even through injuries -- Rakim Cox's broken hand and a brief stint on the sideline for Dillon Lucas -- they seemed to keep going.
Against Richmond, however, one of the league's strongest offensive lines showed that the Villanova defense wasn't perfect. If you can beat them in the trenches, you can move the chains.
Not that it's easy to beat them in the trenches. The 'Cats are second in the conference for sacks and their losses came only against the two strongest teams for preventing them. Defensive end Rakim Cox is wearing a club cast on his hand, but ranks second in the league for sacks, while defensive tackle Antoine Lewis is ranked in the top-10 for tackles-for-loss.
Eric Loper has stepped up this season as well. He had big games and big plays in the past, but this year he seems to have at least a little more focus. He earned Defensive Player of the Week honors after the Georgia State game, and ranks first in the CAA for passes defended, and he's tied for sixth (along with sophomore safety Joe Sarnese) in interceptions.
For all of their good moments, however, perhaps we overrated them a bit after they bounced back from the Temple game. They are the fifth-best rushing defense, the fifth-best scoring defense and the 4th-best total defense in the CAA. Good, but not unstoppable.
Villanova's defense needs to perform better in the final two games. Neither JMU or Delaware has been nearly as effective at protecting their quarterback as Towson and Richmond were. Getting into the backfield, whether a sack or not, will help improve the passing defense against those teams, taking the pressure off of a secondary that isn't really geared for shutdown, man-to-man coverage.
Offensively, Villanova hasn't looked too bad. Somewhat one-dimensional at times, the 'Cats are clearly a run-first team. Kevin Monangai has been excellent since becoming a feature-back after Austin Medley's injury. The speed in the running game comes from quarterback John Robertson now, while Monangai is the powerful runner who will run through contact and pick up yardage.
While Nova looks to build offense off of it's running game, they will need to continue to get comfortable with the passing game as opposing teams look to try and shut down Villanova's rushing attack.
Nobody expected much from the Wildcats this season, five wins seemed like a very positive prediction prior to week one (and probably after it as well). Bouncing back to have a winning season after winning only two games in 2011 is a huge improvement for the program.
Now, the team has secured a winning record for the season and still has a shot at landing a playoff bid with another win or two. The Wildcats will surely be well-rested and healthier (including Norman White, nursing an MCL injury) heading into their next game at home against James Madison, but they will need a scheme and level of execution that are designed to take down another tough opponent.