Villanova needed a win in the final week of 2010 over a powerful Delaware team in order to make the playoffs. The 'Cats spent most of that season without do-everything star Matt Szczur, and their record showed it -- but the combination of a rivalry game and a must-win scenario drove those 'Cats. The opening kickoff was returned for a touchdown by Angelo Babbaro, and the 'Cats battled their way to an overtime victory and a playoff appearance.
This season, the 'Cats come in to Delaware as the more-potent team, but it remains a must-win scenario for the 'Cats, who haven't lost in Newark since 2004.
Nova suffered a few injuries during last week's home win against James Madison. The long-snapper, Adam Nelson, was pulled from the game with what appeared to be a broken hand, according to Andy Talley's post-game press-conference. Scarier, however, was the fact that quarterback John Robertson was pulled in the fourth-quarter with what appeared to be a concussion after a series where he was sacked multiple times.
The good news is that it appears that Robertson has been cleared to practice today. The university put the starting quarterback through a series of concussion baseline tests early this week to determine whether or not he would be cleared to play this weekend. With him apparently passing those tests (and performing well in practice), the 'Cats won't need to scramble and prepare an offensive package built around sophomore quarterback Chris Polony.
Not that Polony wouldn't have his upsides in this game. Delaware has the top rushing defense in the CAA, but has struggled comparatively with pass-protection, coming in next-to-last in the conference in that category. Robertson has been an effective passer for most of the year, but hasn't really had to throw the ball that much either. Polony doesn't offer as much on the ground, but he has a strong arm and is used to passing from the pocket.
There are few rushing defenses that can shut down Villanova's ground attack when both Robertson and bruising sophomore running back Kevin Monangai are on the field. Monangai is the league's top runner, while Robertson also ranks in the top-10 -- forming a terrific "thunder-and-lightning" attack that has rushed for over 300 yards in three of the last four games.
Monangai is only the fourth Villanova player to eclipse the 1,000-yard rushing mark in a single season.
Delaware will be prepared for that offensive scheme, however, and in order to keep the Blue Hens from stopping the run by crowding the line of scrimmage, Robertson will have to find some receivers down the field. He completed a 60+ yard pass to Joe Price early last week that bought him some respect from the James Madison defenders and should look to do the same this weekend, especially with the Blue Hens' weakness against the pass.
Defensively, Villanova will have to watch out for Delaware on both fronts. The Hens are expecting the return of tailback Andrew Pierce, who seemingly appeared out of nowhere to take the CAA by storm two seasons ago. Pierce may be limited in the game still, after suffering an ankle injury a few weeks back, but he is still a talented runner that will add a different dimension to the Hen's offense.
Their rushing offense this season, especially without Pierce, has been near the bottom of the CAA conference, ranking ninth, while their passing game is closer to the middle of the pack. Villanova's defensive backs will have to work well in coverage on Saturday to limit Delaware's ability to move the ball in the air.
The secondary will get a big boost, however, if Villanova's defensive line continues the efforts of last week, dominating the line of scrimmage, breaking down the pocket and either creating sack opportunities or forcing a quick and sloppy throw. Reigning CAA Defensive Player of the Week, Joey Harmon, was able to get involved in three sacks and two safeties last week because of that line play.
Delaware has their issues this season, but the Hen's have enough talent to make some big plays in this game if they are allowed to. They won't be playing for a spot in the FCS playoffs, but they do have plenty to play for. For starters, the 5-5 Delaware team will be playing to avoid a losing record -- which would be the third losing season of head coach K.C. Keeler's career and the Hen's first since 2008. They are also playing to give their seniors a better finish to their careers and the underclassmen a chance to have some momentum going into the 2013 season. A rivalry win would also erase a lot of the hard feelings built up while accumulating five losses in their last six games.
Those factors mean that Villanova has to be sharp. In addition to some luck around the CAA and FCS in the final week, the Wildcats will almost certainly need a win this weekend to keep their playoff-push alive.
Villanova comes into this game with a better record and more success this season than their rivals. Despite playing away at Delaware Stadium, the 7-3 Wildcats should be favored over the 5-5 Blue Hens this weekend. That said, even when the schools have had divergent seasons, the recently-named "Battle of the Blue" has tended to be a close one -- even a 2-win Villanova team was able to come close to stealing a victory last season over a 7-win Delaware team that just missed the playoffs.
That fact makes execution imperative for both sides. If Villanova comes out flat and plays a sloppy and error-filled game like they did against Towson, UDel will have an opportunity. If they continue last week's game-plan execution, then they should be able to head back to the Main Line with a reason to tune in to Sunday's FCS Playoff Selection show (on ESPN U at 1:30pm).