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Villanova Football game preview: Three Things to Watch vs. Bucknell

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Can the Wildcats bounce back after suffering their first loss of the season?

The Wildcats (2-1) are looking to rebound after getting dealt their first loss of the season.

Villanova wraps up its non-conference schedule and its Parents’ Weekend festivities with a game against the Bucknell Bison (0-3). The Bison is still searching for its first victory of the year and was most recently beaten by the Penn Quakers, 34-17.

Here are three things to watch for in Saturday’s game, which kicks off at 6 p.m.


Ch-Ch-Changes

If Towson had a dynamic offense and a strong aerial attack, Bucknell is just the opposite. Offensive production hasn’t been easy to come by for the Bison, who averages just a touch over 200 total yards per game (118th in FCS, out of 124 schools). Bucknell found paydirt just five times this season, and averages just 12.7 points per game. On average, opponents have outscored them by a margin of about two touchdowns. However, Bucknell made a change at quarterback midway through last week’s loss that might give the Bison some optimism moving forward.

Junior quarterback John Chiarolanzio has started the first three games for the Bison. He struggled to begin the year, completing 55.7 percent of his passes for 247 yards and three interceptions. He has yet to throw a passing touchdown. In the first play of the game against Penn, he threw a pick, and Bucknell experimented with sophomore Logan Bitikofer. Bitikofer played a drive, and then was subbed back out for Chiarolanzio, before finally taking over for a vast majority of the game. While 19-of-35 (54.3 percent) isn’t exactly a stellar completion rate, Bitikofer was able to get the ball moving and was able to finish drives with touchdowns. His 150-yard game has him on pace to easily pass Chiarolanzio, who only had 247 yards over three games. He had a pair of touchdowns, but also had an interception.

Bitikofer’s first glimpse at game action was far from perfect, but it’s what the Bison desperately needed. It’s a step in the right direction. Bucknell will likely experiment with him again, and possibly even start him, but it will be quite the test for whichever Bucknell quarterback lines up under center.

Defensive Doozy

Things took a sharp turn for the worst for the Villanova defense, as Towson scored 28 unanswered points to take the lead last week. The Wildcats never regained the lead. Although it was a big game offensively for Zach Bednarczyk, who threw for 389 yards and four touchdowns (the most passing yards for a Villanova quarterback in a single game since 2002), it was a rough one for the Wildcat defense.

Apart from the equally good performance from Towson quarterback Tom Flacco, the Tigers were able to deal a lot of damage on the ground. Towson, a team that’s not particularly known for its ground-and-pound, finished with 208 rushing yards as a team. It was the first time that Villanova allowed an opponent to run for at least 200 yards since Delaware did so in 2015. The Tigers’ success on the ground helped them put up a staggering 45 points, the highest for an opponent since 2012. Lastly, they had 528 yards of total offense, something no Villanova foe had done since William & Mary in 2014.

After giving up that much to the Tigers, expect the Wildcats’ defensive unit to come out inspired. Bucknell doesn’t have the same offensive firepower as Towson, so this might be a great opportunity to rebound.

Fantastic Freshmen

While Bucknell might not have eye-popping numbers on offense, you can really see the potential in freshman running back Jared Cooper. Cooper, a native of West Chester, Pa., has stepped up in a big way in his first season with the Bison. With a season-ending injury to Chad Freshnock ruining the Bison’s plans for this year, head coach Joe Susan initially planned on taking a running back-by-committee approach in filling out his backfield. Sophomore Marquis Carter and Cooper were looked at as the leading backs at this position. Carter looked solid in the season opener against William & Mary, but Cooper has taken over since then. The 5-foot-7 freshman is able to help out in the passing game, as well as deal damage on the ground. Cooper hasn’t scored a touchdown yet, but it’s only a matter of time before he does. So far, he’s leading the team in almost every rushing and receiving statistic. On the ground, he’s carried the ball 32 times for 176 yards. He also has 12 receptions for 94 yards. He will be a fun player to watch over the next couple of years as he develops and matures.

On Villanova’s side of things, true freshman Christian Benford has proven to be a great addition for the Wildcats’ defense. The six-foot tall cornerback out of Randallstown, Md. has been a pleasant surprise in the way that he was able to come in, understand Villanova’s schemes, and make an impact right away in the secondary. Against Towson, he was tied with Rob Rolle for a game-high 11 tackles. So far this season, Benford is leading the ‘Cats in tackles, with 22 for the entire year. He also has one interception to his name. At the pace that Benford is playing, he will certainly develop into another big playmaker in the Villanova ‘#NoFlyZone’.