Villanova hosts Penn at Villanova Stadium for the first time since a 2010 game that nearly cost the Wildcats a return to the playoffs when star Matt Szczur suffered an ankle injury that sidelined him until the season-ending game at Delaware. The Quakers held a narrow lead until late in the fourth-quarter in that game, one of their closest-calls against the 'Cats since 2004. Though the Wildcats are the bigger power in FCS football, the Quakers tend to host this "Schuylkill Showdown," but this weekend they will again make the trek from University City to the Main Line.
While Penn holds the advantage in games-hosted in this series, they have not held an advantage on the scoreboard in a while, with their last win against Villanova coming in 1911, while the Quakers were a national football power (they signed a broadcast deal with ABC in 1950 to televise all of their home games). The rivalry took a hiatus for 69 years until a meeting in 1980, and another 19-year hiatus after that meeting (partially due to Villanova's program being cancelled).
Despite Villanova's perfect winning record against Penn since resuming the series for good in 2004, the Quakers have given the 'Cats a few scares in that time. The Quakers are the reigning Ivy League champions, and have won the conference title outright in three of the four prior seasons. Head coach Al Bagnoli has 229 victories on his record, and the veteran Quakers team that he returns this season will be looking to shake things up on the Main Line.
Villanova's Andy Talley owns 227 victories and last week's win over Stony Brook was his 199th as the head coach at 'Nova. This game will be just the fourth time that two FCS coaches with 200 or more wins have met in a game.
Last week, the Quakers took a close win over Patriot League foe, Lafayette, 27-21, in their season opener.
Quarterback Billy Ragone is in his fifth season at Penn, and is just five touchdowns short of the school record of 54. Ragone has scored both on the ground and with his arm for the Quakers and will likely showcase a little bit of both this week against Villanova. He was picked off on his first pass attempt of the season, but Ragone won't make a habit of that all season.
Ragone passed for 218 yards and two touchdowns in the opener, but didn't make much progress on the ground. His top receiver was running back Spencer Kulcsar who caught five passes for 66 yards, but the Quakers spread the ball around, with four receivers catching five balls each and all with 47 or more yards.
Kulcsar, a junior, was the star of the Penn offense, catching passes out of the backfield, running 13 times with a touchdown, and turning what could have been a terrible mistake, into a big play. In an impressive incident, Kulcsar grabbed a bad snap that flew over Ragone's head, and took it from the 20-yard line to the endzone for a score.
Though the score wound up close, the Penn defense did a great job against Lafayette for three quarters, allowing only one score in the second period. When the fourth quarter began, the Quakers led by 20, before the defense began to give, and allow the Leopards to claw back into the game with two more scores.
Penn has a number of veteran players and a coaching staff that knows what to expect from this Villanova team. The Wildcats cannot get caught looking past a team that may be desperate to break a losing trend against the main-liners. After last week's performance, expect the Quakers defense to hone in on quarterback John Robertson like a magnet. As they did last Fall, Penn is likely to try and control the Villanova quarterback and challenge him to throw the ball.
Last season Robertson responded by completing some big passes downfield to Norman White and Joe Price, but this season, White is gone and Price has seemed to be out of the mix. Robertson is going to run in this game, but the Wildcats will need to take advantage of Penn's defense by finding a way to gain yards otherwise. If the defense stacks the box, that should open up receivers in the passing game again, but Villanova will need Robertson to get the ball to them.
Defensively, the Wildcats need to watch out for Ragone, who is the focal point of Penn's offense. The Quakers use a somewhat balanced offense that ran 40 times and threw 31 last week. In the running game, the 'Cats need to bottle up Ragone and Colavita, while they will also have to watch for the tailback pass and three senior wide receivers in the passing game.
Penn may also go to fifth-year senior Ryan Becker to gain an advantage in the passing game. Ragone took most of the snaps last week, but Becker is the stronger passer of the two if the Quakers want to air it out. If Becker is on the field, Nova should be prepared for a more vertical passing offense to be unveiled.
In all, Penn is a non-scholarship Ivy program that shouldn't win on Saturday, but the Quakers are strong enough and experienced enough to overcome that deficit if the Wildcats don't take them seriously. As they did with Stony Brook last Saturday, Villanova needs to come out and play no-nonsense, mistake-free football if they want to avoid embarrassment and even their record at 2-2.