Leaning on their defense, Villanova has pulled themselves out of the CAA gutter and into contention near the top of the league. With a win tomorrow at JMU, the 'Cats would finish the season with seven wins and a 6-2 mark in conference play; which could be good enough for a share of the league title if Richmond knocks off William & Mary. Even then, the 'Cats will rely on Jeff Sagarin's computer or the kindness of the selection committee to land a coveted playoff bid -- likely on the road.
It's a long way to fall for the team that had National Championship hopes by the end of last season, and expectations entering this Fall. The Wildcats lost their star quarterback and had to re-adjust their expectations. JMU had a similar readjustment when Vad Lee ended his season with surgery a few weeks back.
Despite the change of personnel under center, the Dukes still feature a high-powered offense that scored 49 points in their loss to Richmond and 41 in a loss to William & Mary -- just a half-step back from the 48 points they hung during their win at FBS Southern Methodist earlier in the season. With Lee out, Bryan Schor has stepped in for JMU, closing out the game against Richmond admirably, then passing for 227 yards with 1 touchdown and 1 interception against William & Mary, and going 18-for-32 for 193 yards and a touchdown last week against Delaware.
Schor is also capable in the running game, though probably not as much as Lee. Schor has rushed for 64 and 65 yards in the past two games. The Dukes will look primarily to Cardon Johnson to carry the load on the ground; he has gained 134 yards and 98 yards in the past two games.
Rashard Davis and Brandon Ravenel have been Schor's favorite targets since taking over. Davis collected 125 yards on four catches against the Tribe and 73 yards on five catches against the Hens last week. Ravenel caught 7 balls against W&M for 56 yards, and had five catches for 44 yards and a score last weekend.
Against Delaware, the JMU offense looked a lot off from the high-power scoring machine that it had been prior to last week. Given their result the week before, there's a good chance it was a fluke, however, if that trend continues, it would be to Villanova's great advantage.
As strong as the Dukes' offense has been this season, their defense has not been as potent. They rank closer to the bottom of the CAA in most categories, and while the Dukes have scored points by truckload, their opponents haven't been shut out, or close to it.
They are susceptible to the running game -- Villanova's strength -- especially when their weaker rotation players are on the field. Villanova will look to push that defensive line up front and create lanes for Gary Underwood to run. Without Matt Gudzak this week, Underwood will have to take more carries, with a little bit of help from freshman tailback Aaron Forbes and perhaps a couple of carries by converted slot-receiver Jarrett McClenton.
It is clear that quarterback Zach Bednarczyk is not ready to do his gunslinging Brett Favre impression this season, but he can be effective in the passing game if the run is helping Villanova to move the chains.
Defensively, Villanova will need to continue it's trend of battening down the hatches. A strong Delaware pass rush really disrupted the Dukes' offense with Schor under center. Look for Tanoh Kpassagnon to be a potential factor in the pass-rush this week, along with a three-headed rotation of 300-pound bodies at nose tackle. The Villanova defense is certainly the team's strength, and it is one of the best in the CAA, as they proved last weekend, in a tight one-point victory over Richmond. This week, their goal will be to make Schor uncomfortable, and force the JMU understudy to make mistakes that could help give 'Nova the edge.
This should be a tough game and a big test for one of the better defensive units Villanova has fielded. JMU enters the game as a favorite with a chance at a playoff seeding with a victory. Villanova enters the game looking for one more win and an shot to show the playoff committee that they're worth taking a flyer on.