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Villanova Football vs. Albany: 3 things to watch

The Wildcats open up conference play on the road.

The Wildcats are looking pretty good heading into CAA play. After last week's 59-0 beatdown of Lafayette, No. 7 Villanova enjoyed its last non-conference bout, improving to 2-1 on the season. The Wildcats are 23-7 in CAA opening games, including a streak of five straight wins.

The hosting Albany Great Danes (2-1) are determined to end that streak. They enter Saturday's game after back-to-back wins over Monmouth, rebounding since losing a week one game against FBS school Old Dominion.

Here are three things to watch for in this weekend's game:

Albany's Great Dane?

Last season, Elijah Ibitokun-Hanks enjoyed a breakout season as a sophomore, elevating himself to be the top rusher in the CAA and one of the best in the country. He ran for a conference-best 1,401 yards and 16 touchdowns. His play earned him a spot as a FCS third team All-American. Going into this year, the hype was still there for the junior tailback. However, there were some setbacks. After the 2016 season finale, a MRI revealed that the Albany star had torn his ACL and would need surgery. The recovery process forced him to miss the first two games of this season—after re-injuring his leg in training camp--but he was able to come back against Monmouth. He had 63 yards and a touchdown off of 17 carries. He didn't look like his flashy, playmaking self, but his presence was well noticed by the Hawks' defense. Now, his status is unknown for Saturday, although it's not looking too good at this point. Ibitokun-Hanks didn't practice for a couple days earlier in the week and it might even be a game-time decision. He played well against Villanova last season. On a windy, blustery day in which both teams barely passed the ball due to the conditions, Ibitokun-Hanks ran for 141 yards and a touchdown on a great Villanova defense that was keen on trying to stop the run. If Ibitokun-Hanks does not play, the Great Danes will rely on freshman Karl Mofor and and redshirt junior Kendall Rodgers Jr. to get the ground game going. Mofor has gotten almost 80 percent of the carries so far and collectively, as a tandem, both combine for 289 yards--with Mofor scoring three touchdowns.

First Impressions Aren’t Everything

Led by tackling machine and recent CAA Defensive Player of the Week, linebacker Nate Hatalsky, the Great Danes have been impressing on defense. After giving up 31 points in a season opening loss to Old Dominion, the Albany defense has stepped up and is possibly the best part of this team. The Great Danes have given up only 14 points over the last two games, and they’ve given up the second-fewest passing and rushing yards in the CAA—trailing only the defending national champions, James Madison. They have also given up the fewest amount of first downs in the CAA, giving up 37. This defensive unit, led by Hatalsky, is a physical one that looks to make the big hit and a game-changing play. Through just three games, they have picked off their opponents twice and forced nine fumbles, recovering four of them. Hatalsky has been the heart and soul of this Albany defense. He’s tallied 27 tackles, five for loss, assisted on a sack, and has one fumble recovery. The redshirt senior led Albany with 15 tackles in its last game out against Monmouth. He will certainly be one to watch for.

Similar to Albany, Villanova’s defense has rebounded greatly since giving up 35 points to Lehigh in its season opener. The Wildcats followed up by allowing 16 points to Temple, then completely shutting down Lafayette. The Leopards were held to just 77 total yards last week, the fewest by a Villanova opponent since 1997.

Staying Disciplined

The Wildcats were nearly perfect in the 59-0 rout of Lafayette. However, one blaring blemish is the amount of penalties they had. They had 12 penalties for 107 yards, catapulting them down the leaderboards and tied for 86th in the fewest number of penalties category. While their effect wasn’t felt in such a one-sided affair, penalties made an impact in the game against Temple, especially on that final Owls’ drive that helped set up the game-deciding field goal. Villanova currently has a total of 24 penalties for 198 yards this season. Albany is slightly worse—26 yellow flags for 211 yards—but opponents have been pretty tame compared to the ‘Cats. Through three games, opponents have been flagged a combined 14 times and the average penalty yards are about half of Villanova’s. This could possibly be a defensive battle, with both teams’ defense setting the tone. If that happens there would be little room for error, and it would be even tighter with costly penalties.