Last season, the Patriot League's ineligible* Rams went down to Radnor Township to reignite a series with Villanova that had been dormant for years. While few expected the Rams to be victorious, even against a Villanova team that was coming off of a 2-win season and a loss to Temple, the Bronx Jesuits had a different idea, scoring 13 points in the first half and leading the 'Cats at halftime. Their revived program gave Villanova all it could handle a season ago before succombing to a 21-0 effort from Villanova in the second half.
Now with a full-complement of scholarships, Fordham will host Villanova this weekend in New York, where they will try to break a 93-year stretch of bad luck against the 'Cats.
Fordham returns 11 starters from last season, including six on defense. Michael Nebrich is now the Rams' starting quarterback after serving in a "relief" role for Ryan Higgins last season. The fact that Coach Joe Moorhead was able to work Nebrich (a stronger running quarterback) into the mix last season before his injury, only help his transition to full-time starter.
A UConn transfer, Nebrich went 17-25 for 267 yards and 4 touchdowns in the Rams' season opener against a Rhode Island team that lost it's 14th straight game in the Bronx. Whereas last season, Nebrich was primarily making plays with his feet, the quarterback gained only 31 yards rushing last week, doing most of his damage from behind the line of scrimmage. Receivers Sam Ajala and Brian Wetzel each caught two of those scores, going for 112 and 90 yards, respectively.
In the running game, senior Carlton Koonce led the way, picking up 90 of the team's 149 rushing yards on 14 carries. The preseason All-Patriot League running back will be the workhorse for the Rams this season, taking some pressure off of the new starting quarterback. The team lost some veteran wide receivers, but still has All-Patriot selections Wetzel as well as tight end Dan Light as options along with Ajala, who played an outstanding game in the opener.
The Rams play a fast-paced offense, wasting no time between snaps to try and keep opposing defenses off-balance. Villanova's injury-battered defense will have to play fast as well to keep up.
Fordham's defense let it down too often last season, placing last in the Patriot League in both total and passing yardage allowed. Last weekend, the Fordham defense allowed Rhody to outgain them, 433-416, but allowed just 156 passing yards to URI QB Bob Bentsen — who was picked off twice for his troubles. They were gashed by the CAA cellar-dwellers for 277 yards on the ground and two touchdowns.
On defense, Fordham plays a similar scheme to Villanova, though they will often work out of a four-man front, switching to three down linemen to maximize their blitz packages as needed. They are not a heavy blitzing defense like Boston College, but they have good speed and get to the ball.
While URI isn't indicative of how Fordham will play against an opponent from the top of the CAA, they do demonstrate that this Fordham team is serious about winning this season. Fordham began the build-up to 60 scholarships four years ago, after not offering any in the sport since the 1950s. Their decision to add scholarships was credited by school officials with helping them to land this series with Villanova, along with a number of games against FBS schools — Last season they travelled to Cincinnati and this season, Fordham will come to Philadelphia to take on Temple.
This certainly isn't last-season's Fordham, who were out-gunned by the WIldcats who ultimately wore them down. Like last season, the Rams opened 2013 by dropping over 50 points on a down-on-its-luck program, but this time around it was an FCS school, rather than a Division II patsy.
The 'Cats won't have much of an advantage this season in scholarship numbers, but they may have one in size. Villanova's offensive line is massive for 1-AA football, averaging 307 pounds, the 'Cats linemen actually had more size (on average) than their opening day opponent. Villanova has a big and experienced offensive line that should do better protecting quarterback John Robertson this week against an FCS defense.
Defensively, the Wildcats have big bodies on the defensive line and at linebacker as well, which will be a big advantage over Fordham's defense which has only three linebackers weighing in at 230-pounds or more. The 'Cats will look to use that size to stop Nebrich and Koonce by breaking through the Rams' protection and putting both backfield stars on the turf.
Offensively, the Wildcats won't likely do much different than last year — run the ball well enough against any team and the 'Cats will be victorious. The 2012 'Cats did just that, picking up 365 yards of offense against Fordham with all but 78 on the ground. This season, Fordham will be a little more prepared for John Robertson, however, and the Wildcats will need to be prepared to open the passing game up more if the Rams find success slowing the ground game.
What Fordham didn't see a year ago is Villanova's up-and-coming star in Jamal Abdur-Rahman. The executor of the nation's most popular fake punt video on YouTube (over 3,325,000 views on YouTube) was suspended last fall, but promises to bring speed, versatility and just a little bit of that "razzle-dazzle" to the Wildcat offense this season in a "utility" role, serving as slot receiver, running back and return man.
Don't expect as many tricks from the Villanova staff this week, as they gameplan for a I-AA opponent. Fewer big risks mean fewer big rewards, but also less opportunity for mistakes like the halfback-pass interception in the BC game. Eliminating these errors and leaning on Nova's strengths should be enough to keep the 'Cats ahead of the curve in this game, but if the Rams come out of the gate strong again this season, it may not be as easy to wear them down. Taking control of the game early is key for the Wildcats, who could use a decisive victory over a Fordham squad that is budding into a Patriot League contender.
A loss in this game would put the 'Cats at 0-2 on the season and potentially push them out of the top-25. A win keeps them in the top-10 and highlights the start of a season that the program hopes will conclude with a deep playoff run.
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*Fordham has been ineligible to win the Patriot League football title since adding scholarships in the 2010 season, against the league's non-scholarship policy. With the Patriot League agreeing to adopt football scholarships, however, the Rams will become eligible for the league title again in 2014.