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2018 Villanova Football game preview: Three Things to Watch vs. James Madison

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In danger of falling below .500, can the ‘Cats pull off an upset of the three-time defending CAA champions?

NCAA Football: DI Football Championship Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Villanova (3-3, 0-3 CAA) will have its hands full this week, as it prepares to host reigning conference champion James Madison (4-2, 2-1 CAA) this Saturday afternoon, at 3 p.m.

Both teams are looking to bounce back from losses.

Villanova suffered back-to-back defeats, most recently falling to the Maine Black Bears, 13-10. The Wildcats have yet to win a game against a CAA opponent this season.

As for James Madison, it had a rare loss last week, losing to Elon in a top-10 FCS showdown. The Phoenix handed the Dukes their first CAA loss since 2015, beating them 27-24.

Here are three things to watch for this Saturday:


Top Dogs

Sure, James Madison lost last Saturday, breaking a 20-game win streak against conference opponents. However, the CAA has been all theirs for the last three years. Head coach Mike Houston has done a tremendous job with this team since taking over in 2016. He helped guide the Dukes to a National Championship in his first season, and last year, they made it back to the championship game. The Dukes have won three straight CAA titles and while this recent loss might be a setback en route to their fourth, they’re determined to make that four-peat a reality. Half of the players on this team just experienced losing a conference game for the first time ever, they’re going to be fired up and extra motivated. Unfortunately for the Wildcats, they’re up next to face them. James Madison is a juggernaut on both sides of the ball. So far this season, the Dukes have averaged a CAA-best 40.2 points per game, which is good for 10th in all of FCS. Defensively, they’ve held opponents to just 11.3 points per game, ranking them among the top three scoring defenses in the country.

Pick Your Poison

James Madison has the talent and the experience to gear up for another deep run in the FCS Playoffs. On offense, this is a team that has racked up a conference-best 2,556 yards of total offense this season, doing so with a balanced approach. The Duke backfield boasts a trio of seniors that have had years of taking a good amount of snaps since they were underclassmen. Marcus Marshall, Trai Sharp, and Cardon Johnson are all dangerous when they touch the ball and there never seems to be any drop off in this running back committee. They all have similar numbers, but Marshall is the guy James Madison loves to look for to finish off drives. He is the “touchdown back” of this trio.

Leading the huddle is Pittsburgh transfer Ben DiNucci. Per NCAA rules, if a player moves from a FBS school to a FCS one, the player can play immediately without sitting out, redshirting, or losing a year of eligibility. DiNucci has filled in the gap left from multi-year starter Bryan Schor at quarterback admirably, taking over without a hitch. Through six games, he has completed 70 percent of passes for 1,117 yards, 10 touchdowns, and three interceptions. Just as James Madison has a good amount of variety in its run game, its receiving corps is just the same. There are a number of different receivers that DiNucci can spread the damage along, but keep an eye out for Riley Stapleton, Kyndel Dean, and David Eldridge. Stapleton led the Dukes last season in receiving touchdowns and this year, the redshirt junior is the go-to target for DiNucci. He leads the team in receptions (38), receiving yards (442) and touchdowns (five). Eldridge is the other experienced elder statesman within the receivers, but he’s been fairly quiet so far. He only has eight receptions for 129 yards, but don’t be surprised if the turns the corner soon. He was one of the Dukes’ top receivers last year. Last but not least, Dean has made the most of his first season of action so far. The redshirt freshman is right behind Stapleton, with 236 yards and three touchdowns. He has been a solid young contributor.

On defense, the team graduated a lot of seniors and starters from last year, but it appears that the Dukes have reloaded just fine. Besides, it is not a true rebuild on this side of the ball. Redshirt senior Jimmy Moreland continues to be a lockdown cornerback, tallying a team-high four interceptions so far. In the front seven, the Dukes are led by redshirt junior linebacker Dimitri Holloway, who currently leads the team with 49 tackles.

Zach or Jack?

Fifth-year senior Zach Bednarczyk is expected to be a game-time decision for Saturday. Bednarczyk exited midway through the Sept. 29 game against Stony Brook with a shoulder injury. The southpaw quarterback did not play against Maine and as a result, the Wildcats started redshirt sophomore Jack Schetelich in his place. Against Stony Brook, Schetelich seemed decent, he orchestrated three Villanova drives, completing 5-of-6 passes for 56 yards and a touchdown. It looked like he improved from last year, when he was pushed into a starting role after Bednarczyk sustained a season-ending injury. 2017 was filled with growing pains for young Wildcat quarterbacks, as Villanova went with Schetelich and another freshman (that has since transferred to Penn State), Kyle McCloskey. Last year, Schetelich started four of the seven games he played in, completing 37.6 percent of his passes for 366 yards, four touchdowns, and six interceptions. He also ran for 91 yards and four touchdowns on 56 carries.

However, against Maine, Schetelich’s struggles reappeared. He went 12-for-25, throwing for just 93 yards and a pair of interceptions. The Villanova offense couldn’t get into a rhythm and eventually lost to a last-second field goal. The last time the Wildcats played without Bednarczyk--and a couple of other weapons--the Wildcats lost 30-8 to the Dukes last October. At a crucial time of the season, the Wildcats are going to need their best available, especially against James Madison. When Bednarczyk is healthy, he’s one of the top quarterbacks in the conference. He had the ‘Nova offense off to a hot start earlier this year.