Head coach Mark Ferrante is entering this third season at the helm of the football program, and he hopes that this time will be the charm.
In each of the first two years, his team finished an identical 5-6 record overall, with recurring issues with injuries. With the plaguing ailments gone and players all healed up, the Wildcats are ready to indulge in a fresh start with the 2019 season.
Villanova will take on the Colgate Raiders to begin the season, playing the first game in all of Division I football, while celebrating the 150th anniversary of College Football.
The Wildcats dominated the Raiders in their previous matchup back in 2008, when the Wildcats won 55-28. However, the odds are a bit different this time around, with Colgate bringing back some key players from its Patriot League championship season and run to the FCS Playoff Quarterfinals.
Colgate finished the 2018 season on top of the Patriot League, going undefeated against conference opponents en route to a 10-2 overall record. This year, the Raiders open the season ranked at No. 13 in FCS.
Here are three things to watch for going into Saturday’s game, which kicks off at 12 p.m. ET.
Defense Wins Championships
As the old saying goes and as Colgate proved last season, defense was vital to Colgate winning the outright Patriot League title and making a trip to the FCS quarterfinals.
With the help of the defense, the Raiders outscored their conference opponents, 223-26. While skeptics may allude to the fact that it’s the Patriot League and not exactly a top-tier conference, know that Colgate went 3-0 against the CAA, including a playoff win against James Madison. Also, it only allowed opponents to score over 20 points twice, once against FBS-level Army and the other against eventual National Champion North Dakota State.
Colgate was the top in the country when it came to yards allowed (just 237.7 yards per game, the fewest in FCS) and scoring defense (9.3 points per game). The Raiders tied a FCS record of five shutout victories in a single season, doing so in a six-week stretch where they also averaged 34.1 points per game.
It was a big year for Colgate, who finished with double-digit victories for the first time since the 2003 season. Although the Raiders lost half of their starters on defense, they retained a pair of key players that were so instrumental to last year’s success. Two All-Americans--defensive back Abu Daramy-Swaray and defensive lineman Nick Wheeler--have returned to lead the team.
Daramy-Swaray is excellent lockdown cornerback that also shines in the return game. Meanwhile, Wheeler is a monster in the trenches, one that racked up 17 tackles-for-loss and 9.5 sacks. He will look to wreak havoc on a Villanova O-Line that will be introducing three new starting linemen this season.
Villanova’s defense is also the biggest strength for its team, so it’s possible that we see a low-scoring defensive battle. Maybe not one that will be appealing for the 150th anniversary kickoff, but it could be a huge confidence-boost and sense of validation if ‘Nova can crack the Colgate defense or pull off the upset victory.
Unsurprisingly, head coach Mark Ferrante has narrowed his search for starting quarterback to three contenders: redshirt junior Jack Schetelich, graduate transfer Daniel Smith, and sophomore Qadir Ismail.
Surprisingly, he also disclosed that it’s possible we see all three signal callers take the field at various points of the game, serving as an audition of sorts. Maybe it was just Ferrante playing up the mental game and not tipping off which guy Colgate should heavily gameplan or focus on, but it’s also quite possible that he is truly going to experiment with all three of them on Saturday.
The official depth chart for this first game listed all three as equals.
With Schetelich and Ismail as returning players that got to see some game time last season, it’s no surprise that they’re in the conversation for starter. As for Jones, his achievements and career stats at Campbell are too good to overlook. In just three years there, he etched his name onto numerous record titles and all-time lists.
Each quarterback provides a different skill set. Schetelich has the potential to make an impact with his arm and his legs. In his redshirt freshman season, most of his damage came from his ability to scramble. He scored four touchdowns on the ground. Through the air a struggled a bit, but improved upon his efficiency the following season. In 2018, through five games of action, he completed 26-of-49 (53 percent) of his pass attempts for 246 yards, a touchdown, and two interceptions. It was a step up from his redshirt freshman season, where he only completed 38 percent of his passes and had a 4:6 touchdown-to-interception ratio.
As for Ismail, while he is able to run, his strength relies on his throwing arm. At 6-foot-6, 225 pounds, he has a great build for a quarterback. He can see over the O-Line, he’s not exactly an easy person to wrap up. It was clear that when he was pushed into the game that he had some understandable freshman mistakes and needed some collegiate experience. With a full year in the system, how much has that helped him progress and grow acclimated to the game?
Then there’s Smith, the newcomer that is a proven impact dual-threat quarterback with his resume at Campbell. He’s the all-time leader in total offensive yardage, racking up over 5,400 in three years. He’s responsible for 56 touchdowns. Last year, he passed for 13 touchdowns and ran for 13 touchdowns. How much of the Villanova offense he’s able to take in during a single summer remains to be seen and that might enough of a reason to favor the other two.
The Wildcats’ offense has a few more questions than their defense, which returns a majority of its starters and has many proven playmakers on the field.
On offense, gone are the days of having tight end Ryan Bell as a reliable target in the end zone, being one of the receiving touchdown leaders for the team over the last couple of years. Jarrett McClenton had the most receiving yards after Bell went down last season. Running back Aaron Forbes led the team in rushing yards and touchdowns over the last two seasons, but with his departure, who’s next?
Aside from the skill positions, the O-Line lost three long-time starters. There are plenty of gaps to fill and this first game will be a test to see how players look in game situations and if they can impress their coaches. It’s an audition. Justin Covington seems like the easy solution for lead running back, as co-captain and someone who played in the rotation last season. Simon Bingelis is also tabbed to be next in line at tight end.
The wide out situation is interesting, with a number of receivers graduating after last season. So aside from the quarterback position, especially keep an eye out on the O-Line and wide receiver unit, but also see who can be the first to breakout.