After a restful bye week, the Villanova Wildcats head back out onto the gridiron for a homecoming showdown with the Stony Brook Seawolves.
The extra rest was needed by the ‘Cats, who sustained their first loss of the season to James Madison and lost their top running back to an ACL injury. The Wildcats enter Saturday’s matchup at 6-1 (3-1 CAA) and ranked at No. 7 on the recent FCS Top 25 polls.
The Seawolves are coming off of back-to-back losses to James Madison and New Hampshire. Both losses were by a touchdown. The loss to the Dukes was even more devastating, as Stony Brook was close to pulling off the upset, before losing in overtime. Stony Brook enters 4-3 overall and 1-2 in CAA play. The Seawolves’ two recent losses dropped them out of the FCS top 25.
Here are three things to watch for in Saturday’s game, which kicks off at 3:30 p.m. ET:
On the Run
The Wildcats will look to move on from running back Justin Covington, which is a lot easier said than done. The redshirt junior exited the William and Mary game with what was initially reported to be an ankle injury, before revealing that it was an ACL injury during the bye week. Covington had a team-high 727 rushing yards and three touchdowns on 90 carries. The James Madison game was an early preview on what the running back rotation will look like, a combination of a variety of rushers in Jalen Jackson, T.D. Ayo-Durojaiye, and Rayjoun Pringle.
Although Ferrante had used a rotation throughout the season, it was clear that Covington was the alpha dog and could deliver that big play. Now, the Wildcats will depend on different underclassmen. With an extra week to prepare, the Wildcats will hope for a better showing than the 47 rushing yards (2.35 yards per carry) they had against James Madison. It won’t be easy, as Stony Brook has one of the better run defenses in the CAA, holding opponents to 127.6 yards per game (after James Madison and Villanova). The absence of Covington was felt and put more pressure on quarterback Daniel Smith and the passing game. The underclassmen group of running backs will try to prove that the James Madison game was just a one-time deal, especially since it was against a defensive titan like the Dukes. The Wildcats’ offensive success relies upon striking a balance, and they will look to re-establish that on Saturday.
Strength in Numbers
Like Villanova, the Stony Brook run game will also have the spotlight. The Seawolves love to use a run-heavy type of offense, and they have a number of different players that can pick up yards on the ground. They have a trio of reliable running backs, who combine for just over 1,300 yards as a unit. Each player is used pretty evenly, regarding their number of carries. Seba Nekhet has a team-high 481 yards, with touchdowns. Fifth-year senior Isaiah White has 460 yards and five touchdowns. Then there’s Ty Son Lawton, who has only played in five games this season, but is coming off of back-to-back 100-yard performances. Lawton has 379 yards and a team-high six touchdowns.
If that’s not enough, there’s also dual-threat quarterback Tyquell Fields, who’s scrambled his way to another 253 yards and two touchdowns on the ground. This is a rushing attack that averages 235.3 yards per game, just 1.1 yards below conference leader James Madison. They’ll likely try to slow things down and keep the ball away from ‘Nova.
However, Fields isn’t just there to hand the ball off. He can keep defenses honest with the way he’s able to run, if needed, but he also has a solid arm and a couple of different receivers that can get the job done. Although his completion percentage isn’t stellar (50.9 percent), Fields has thrown for 1,436 yards, nine touchdowns, and three interceptions. He likes to spread the wealth among three key receivers: Nick Anderson, Andrew Trent, and Jean Constant. Anderson and Jean both have 22 receptions this year. Anderson has a team-high 429 yards, but Constant is the guy to go to for a score in the slot. He’s caught half of the team’s touchdown passes, leading the way with five scores. Meanwhile, Trent has 14 receptions for 353 yards.
Until the James Madison game, the Wildcats had handled adversity well. There was a shootout against Towson, and then a scare from William and Mary, but for the first time this season--losing a game became more of a possibility as the clock wound down. Smith has looked impressive so far, but it’ll be interesting to see how he bounces back after the ending of the James Madison game.
Villanova was winning, 24-17, in the fourth quarter, when a fumble return touchdown allowed the Dukes to tie the game. Then, there was a pick-six thrown by Smith that was returned for the go-ahead score. The Wildcats’ turnover woes didn’t stop there, as their final two drives of the game ended in interceptions. Villanova hasn’t played an official quarter of football since. It wasn’t the ending Villanova wanted, especially in the biggest game of the year. How will the ‘Cats respond? How will Smith bounce back?
He’s had a hand in 23 of Villanova’s 33 touchdowns this season and hasn’t had many bumps in the road throughout. With the Wildcats facing a Stony Brook pass defense that has given up 235 passing yards per game, this might be the ideal opponent to get back on track.