For the first time since 2004, Villanova will be kicking off the football season against a FCS opponent, instead of the usual trend of beginning with a season opening challenge from a FBS team. The No. 10 Wildcats will square off against No. 17-ranked Lehigh in a battle of FCS Top 25 teams. This is a rematch of last year's Sept. 10, 2016 showdown, when Villanova triumphed, 26-21, over Lehigh at home.
The Wildcats went on to finish 9-4 last season and made it to the second round of the FCS playoffs. Meanwhile, Lehigh bounced back from that loss and won nine straight and the Patriot League title before falling to New Hampshire in the FCS playoff opener.
This Saturday, Mark Ferrante will make his Villanova head coaching debut on the road, as he takes his team over to nearby Bethlehem, Pa. to square off against the Mountain Hawks.
He's no stranger to the program, after being the longtime assistant to his predecessor, Andy Talley. However, Villanova-Lehigh would be the first official game of the Ferrante era.
Here are three things to watch for going into Saturday's game.
Lehigh's High-Powered Offense
There was plenty of hype going into this matchup last season about the Mountain Hawks' offense. However, come game time, a strong Wildcat defensive effort led by Austin Calitro and Tanoh Kpassagnon--who have since graduated--stopped the potent offense. This year, there is still a lot of excitement for the Mountain Hawks, who are coming off of a record-breaking season. They put up 466 points and 5,806 yards of total offense last year, shattering the previous program marks. Lehigh was ranked in the top 10 in all of the FCS when it came to passing yards, total yards and scoring. While there are some new faces at a few positions, the defending Patriot League Champions retain a number of key players for this season. Four out of five starting offensive linemen are back to pave the way for the offense. Junior running back Dominick Bragalone enters this season after back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons in his first two years. Then there's the 1,000 receiving yard tandem in Troy Pelletier and Gatlin Casey. Casey is Lehigh's top scoring threat at wide out (14 touchdowns), and the Mountain Hawks were 9-0 when he found the end zone last season, but 0-3 when he was scoreless. As for Pelletier, he's the reliable hands target and finished with a team-high 96 receptions last season. He gashed Villanova for 13 receptions and 121 yards in last year's matchup. Brad Mayes comes in at quarterback after Nick Shafinsky graduated. Mayes, a junior, is no newcomer at signal caller. He had a few appearances here and there in his first two years and is actually 4-1 as a starting quarterback. As a starter, he also boasts a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 15-to-1. A true pocket passer, Mayes has a career 65.6 percent completion percentage and is the school record holder for most completions (33), passing yards (524), and passing touchdowns (6) in a game.
Ground and Pound
Expect Villanova's ball control, possession-based offense to emerge on Saturday, which will try to limit the amount of time the Mountain Hawk offense gets to see on the field. Last season, the Wildcats only had Zach Bednarczyk pass the ball 13 times against Lehigh, while the running game ran the ball down its opponents' throat en route to a 396 yard performance. The Wildcats got the job done in the 26-21 victory thanks to a rushing attack that was mainly carried by three different ballcarriers. Saturday should be something similar to that. Matt Gudzak and Aaron Forbes should get a bulk of the carries and will be relied on to carry the run game forward. D'Andre Pollard and Justin Covington might get in the mix too. Villanova excels in running the ball and when it comes to going against a Lehigh defense that graduated nearly half of its starters from last season, this is an ideal situation for the Wildcats to impose themselves with some hard-nosed running plays.
A New Look Villanova Defense
There's no doubt that the defense was one of Villanova's strengths last season--not only against Lehigh, but the year as a whole. The Wildcats have some new faces taking over for some former key players. Villanova's defensive line is looking like the youngest its been in a while. It returns Ricky Young and Bryan White, who will split time at nose guard, but brings in Aaron Seigle--who the Wildcat coaching staff has high hopes for--and Jafonta Johnson as first-time starters at the ends. Sophomores Drew Wiley or Keeling Hunter may be starting for the first time at linebacker. On top of that, according to Villanova's two-level depth chart, five true freshmen and one redshirt freshman are listed as backups. So, they'll most likely see some time on Saturday. With all these new names to the starting lineup and the rotation, the secondary doesn't seem to be vastly affected by this. Yes, sophomore Julian Williams is the new starter at safety, but the Wildcats' starting defensive backs are some of the most experienced around. Headlined by Rob Rolle, Malik Reaves, Trey Johnson, and Rasaan Stewart, the Villanova secondary will be a tough bunch and will be called upon to quiet the Lehigh passing attack. They will be a vital bunch to the game's outcome, but make sure to also keep an eye on all the new starters and how this defense will look in trying to replicate last year's success.