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

Can Villanova make it four-straight years in a row?

Lehigh v Navy Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

After dismantling then-ranked Colgate in a Week Zero start to usher in the 150th season of College Football, the Villanova Wildcats are back in action.

Villanova (1-0) was rewarded for its upset win with an early bye week and a return to the STATS FCS Polls. This week, the Wildcats returned to the Top 25 rankings, coming in at No. 24. The Wildcats dominated the Raiders on both sides of the ball, and they’ll look to do the same against a hungry, determined Lehigh squad.

The Mountain Hawks (0-1) are coming off of a disappointing loss to St. Francis (Pa.). In Lehigh’s season opener, the Mountain Hawks squandered a 13-0 halftime lead, as the Red Flash regrouped and battled back. St. Francis would eventually take a 14-13 lead late in the game, capitalizing on a few Lehigh miscues and poor offensive execution. Lehigh had one last opportunity to snatch the game away from St. Francis, it just needed to make a 40-yard field goal.

Lehigh’s first attempt went right through the uprights, but St. Francis was able to successfully get a time out off before the snap to ice the kicker. On the second attempt, after the break, the field goal kick went wide right and the Red Flash won the game, 14-13.

After a tough ending to the Mountain Hawks’ first game of the year, expect them to come out insistent on a much better effort.

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

Happy (?) Gilmore

The Tom Gilmore era is underway at Lehigh. Gilmore has taken over the helm of the program, coming in after a 13-year tenure for Andy Coen. Gilmore is no stranger to Lehigh, previously serving as the Mountain Hawks’ defensive coordinator and linebackers coach from 2000-03. After that, he went on to become the coach at another Patriot League school, Holy Cross, for 14 seasons. Most recently, he was a member of the Wake Forest defensive coaching staff last season.

Gilmore’s first game as Lehigh head coach didn’t go as he would have liked, but he’s hoping to put together a better record than last season. Prior to his arrival, the final season of the Coen era finished with a lackluster 3-8 record.

After losing the first game in the fashion that his Mountain Hawks did, dropping another one and falling to the ‘Cats would be less-than-ideal for Lehigh, but history isn’t on its side when it comes to this matchup.

Villanova has a 10-5 all-time record against Lehigh. Since 2004, the Wildcats have especially dominated, winning eight of nine meetings with the Mountain Hawks. Lehigh beat Villanova in 2006--the first time since 1924 that it was able to come out on top.

The recent chapters of history books have been primarily written in blue and white, as the Wildcats have beaten Lehigh in each of the last three seasons--a snippet of an active seven-game winning streak against the Mountain Hawks.

Last year, the Wildcats enjoyed a 31-9 beatdown of Lehigh, and they will hope for a repeat performance on Saturday. Meanwhile, the Mountain Hawks will aim to avoid starting off the year 0-2.

Aerial Attack

After riding workhorse running back Dominick Bragalone, the former All-American and 2017 Patriot League Offensive Player of the Year, Lehigh has now taken a new identity after his graduation. Instead of the ground-and-pound outlook of the past, it appears that Gilmore is trying to get his Mountain Hawks to take a more pass-heavy approach.

In the season opener against St. Francis (Pa.), Lehigh quarterback Tyler Monaco attempted 51 passes against the Red Flash defense. To put things in perspective, his predecessor Brad Mayes had only passed more than 35 times in a single game once last season, and that one instance was still 11 fewer attempts than what Monaco did last weekend.

Against St. Francis, Monaco completed just 21-of-51 pass attempts for 270 yards. A bulk of those targets and production came from Lehigh’s Devon Bibbens and Jorge Portorreal, the Mountain Hawks top receiving threats from a year ago. They posted similar stat lines against the Red Flash, with Bibbens reeling in six passes for 73 yards. Portorreal also had six receptions, but for 66 yards.

Last year, Portorreal led Lehigh in receptions and receiving yardage, racking up 55 catches for 794 yards and three touchdowns. Bibbens was also a key source of production, adding 33 receptions for 576 yards and three touchdowns. They should lead the Lehigh air raid once again this season.

Also keep an eye out for Austin Dambach. The sophomore wide receiver got to see playing time in all 11 games last season as a freshman, finishing the year with 11 receptions for 112 yards and a pair of touchdowns. He’s expected to take a big jump this year, giving opposing defenses one more main threat that they have to account for in the secondary.

Eyes on the ‘Nova Offense

Villanova made it look easy against Colgate in its Week Zero start. As the Wildcats settled into the game, they were able to move the ball at will--on the ground or through the air. The Wildcats will face yet another strong defensive team in Lehigh.

The Mountain Hawks bent at times against the Red Flash, but they barely broke. Despite allowing 361 yards, most of that could be in part to Lehigh’s poor execution on offense throughout the second half, as St. Francis was able to dominate time of possession. Lehigh stood tall, only allowing 14 points for the whole game. It also helped that they were able to force three turnovers.

The Wildcats’ defense has been a cornerstone for Villanova in its recent injury-plagued seasons, but with the offense able to perform at a high level as well will be crucial for the ‘Cats in their pursuit of returning to the FCS Playoffs.

It was a great first impression for the ‘Cats, but can they keep the momentum going? Seeing a strong balanced performance, along with many first-time starters stepping up is huge for the ‘Cats and their building chemistry. Justin Covington and Jalen Jackson seem to be a great one-two punch on the ground. Campbell graduate transfer Daniel Smith looks like the real deal early on, putting together four scoring drives at quarterback (three passing touchdowns, one rushing). He’s got a number of different targets to work with, adding to the unpredictability. The offensive unit gelling together bodes well for the ‘Cats, and building confidence early on is key for a team that only returned four starters on offense.