Villanova Wildcats

Villanova still a top FCS threat in first year without Andy Talley

usa-zack-bednarczyk.jpg
USA Today Images

Villanova still a top FCS threat in first year without Andy Talley

A new era for Villanova football begins Saturday as the Wildcats open the 2017 season vs. Lehigh (12:30 p.m.) with a new man in charge: Mark Ferrante.  

But even though Andy Talley retired after a wildly successful 32-year coaching run, things may not look a whole different at Villanova, where Ferrante has preached to follow much of Talley's philosophy and the Wildcats once again enter a season as a national player in FCS football.

Here's a breakdown of the 10th-ranked Wildcats, who will aim for a title in the loaded Colonial Athletic Association before making a deep run in the FCS playoffs.

Offense
It all begins with junior quarterback Zach Bednarczyk, who is looking to take a big leap in his third year as the starter. He was thrown into the fray as a freshman two years ago after an early injury to star John Robertson and improved as a sophomore, throwing for 2,158 yards and 19 touchdowns and rushing for 539 yards and two TDs on 126 carries. 

What can he do now with two seasons under his belt?

"Zach has made great strides," Ferrante said. "Obviously from his year two years ago to be forced into the starting role to what he accomplished last year, if he can make the same type of improvement from last year to this year, he'll be a really good one that people will be talking about."

Bednarczyk will have a lot of weapons, too — Villanova returns almost all of its skill players from last year, as well as most of its offensive line, after an injury-ravaged season from the offense in 2016.

Leading the charge will be running backs senior Matt Gudzak and junior Aaron Forbes, who came in strong last season and finished with a team-leading 799 rushing yards on 132 carries and eight TDs. And the 'Cats bring back every receiver, including the promising trio of senior Taurus Phillips, junior Jarrett McClenton and senior tight end Ryan Bell, who Ferrante called Bednarczyk's "go-to-guy."

"The chemistry looks great out here," Bednarczyk said. "Everyone gets a good amount of reps. It's great. It gives me more choices. I can look around the field."

The biggest thing Ferrante is harping on is consistency, considering the Wildcats averaged over 30 points per game in their seven wins last season and just seven points or fewer in each of their four losses.

That included their season-ending 10-7 defeat to South Dakota State in the second round of the FCS playoffs.

"We gotta work on finishing the game," Bednarczyk said. "Against South Dakota State, we had the opportunity to go down the field and potentially win. That's been one of our main focuses this year."

Defense
The Wildcats lose freakishly good defensive end Tanoh Kpassagnon and stalwart linebacker Austin Calitro, both of whom are now trying to make it in the NFL. Kpassagnon was a second-round pick of the Kansas City Chiefs; Calitro is an undrafted free agent with the San Francisco 49ers.

And yet 'Nova still thinks it can build off its ferocious FCS-leading defense from a season ago. One big reason for that confidence? Senior safety Rob Rolle, who's been named the CAA preseason Defensive Player of the Year as well as a couple of preseason All-America nods.

As a junior last season, Rolle led the FCS with seven interceptions and scored two defensive TDs, including a 100-yard interception return.

"My goal is always to be around the ball, to change the game," Rolle said. "Ten to 15 tackles are good but interceptions are something everyone likes. And it's what I love to do."

The Wildcats have another dominant defensive player in senior linebacker Ed Shockley, who tied for the team lead in total tackles last year with 18, including 11 for a loss, and had four sacks and a fumble recovery.

And although the team does have to plug holes on the defensive line after losing Kpassagnon and Bryan Osei, Shockley thinks they have a lot of playmakers in Rolle, cornerback Malik Reaves and linebacker Jeff Steeb, among others.

"I think we've picked up from last year when we finished No. 1 in the country," Shockley said. "We lost pieces but I feel like a lot of young guys are ready to step up and take on bigger roles. ... The defense as a whole has a lot more mature, older guys."

Special teams
The Wildcats are in good shape at punter as senior John Hinchen, a four-year starter, was named to the preseason All-CAA team after averaging 41.5 yards per punt with 10 punts of 50 yards or longer and 10 placed inside the 20.

Junior Gerard Smith is expected to be the placekicker. He was 5-of-7 on field goals and 36-of-40 on PATs last season.

Coaching
Ferrante enters a tricky situation trying to fill in for Talley, who guided the Wildcats to the playoffs in six of the last nine seasons, including a 2009 national championship.

But heading into the opener, it's been a smooth transition for Ferrante, who had been Talley's assistant for the last 27 years.

"It's not too much of a change," Bednarczyk said. "I can still sense some of Coach Talley in him, just being around him so long."

Now it's time to find out if Ferrante can bring Talley's coaching chops on game day.

Player to watch
Last season, NFL scouts came in droves to watch Kpassagnon, and this year they're doing the same for Rolle, who Ferrante called the "quarterback" of the defense.

"He'll be a force to be reckoned with in our secondary," said the Villanova coach, who also marveled at how much the All-American does off the field.

For Rolle, the only thing on his mind is winning a ring in his final college season.

"It would mean everything," the senior said. "It's the storybook ending."

Game to watch
While all the CAA games are important, including an Oct. 14 tilt at defending national champion James Madison, the game of most local interest is probably Villanova's clash with Temple at Lincoln Financial Field on Sept. 9.

It will be an extremely difficult matchup for the Wildcats but they've performed well playing up a level in the past.

"We're excited to play Temple," Ferrante said. "That's a great FBS game for us and there should be a really good crowd down there."

Prediction
Villanova's offense should improve and even if its defense takes a small step back, the Wildcats will likely remain one of the best teams in the CAA.

And if things break right for them, they can certainly not only challenge for a conference title but also make a run to the national semifinals.

Villanova moves up to No. 1 in the nation

ap-jalen-brunson-villanova.jpg
AP Images

Villanova moves up to No. 1 in the nation

If you're looking for a sliver of good news on a depressing day in Philly sports, Villanova is now the No. 1 team in the nation.

The 10-0 Wildcats moved up to the top spot in Monday's AP poll, receiving 41 of 65 first-place votes.

Michigan State, Wichita State, Duke and Arizona State round out the top five, in that order (see Top 25).

Duke, the unanimous No. 1 team the last two Mondays, lost 89-84 on Saturday at Boston College.

Last week's No. 2 team, Kansas, moved down to No. 13 after losing twice last week to Washington and Arizona State.

Villanova plays twice this week — at Temple on Wednesday for a Big 5 showdown, then vs. Hofstra on Friday night. Those are the Wildcats' last two non-conference games before they begin Big East play on Dec. 27 at DePaul.

Donte DiVincenzo, Phil Booth help No. 4 Villanova survive La Salle scare

ap-donte-divincenzo-villanova.jpg
AP Images

Donte DiVincenzo, Phil Booth help No. 4 Villanova survive La Salle scare

BOX SCORE

Duke's run at No. 1 ended with a court-storming loss at Boston College and No. 2 Kansas wilted in a rare home loss.

Undaunted and undefeated, Villanova is charging toward the top spot.

"We played the next No. 1 team in the country," La Salle coach John Giannini said Sunday.

The Explorers got a taste of how tough it can be to knock off the Wildcats. La Salle scored more baskets, sank more 3-pointers, had more steals and still was just another victim in Villanova's unbeaten season.

Phil Booth scored 18 points and Donte DiVincenzo had 18 points and 10 rebounds to help the fourth-ranked Wildcats avoid an upset in a 77-68 win over La Salle.

"They don't have bad games," Giannini said.

This was as close as one gets for the Wildcats (10-0). They were sloppy -- throwing the ball away several times on outlet passes -- slumped from the 3-point line and could not shake the pesky Explorers until the final minutes of the game to win their 21st straight Big 5 game.

The Wildcats had depth and a massive edge from the free-throw line to sink the Explorers. La Salle (5-6) was a two-man show in B.J Johnson and Amar Stukes, and that was enough to give them a 62-61 lead with 4:47 left.

But the Wildcats had Booth and DiVincenzo, and Jalen Brunson scored 17 and Mikal Bridges, quiet all game, came to life for crucial baskets late to seal the win. Throw in the whopping disparity from the line -- Villanova made 27 of 35, La Salle was 4 of 5 -- and the Wildcats made their case for why they should fight it out with No 3. Michigan State (9-1) to become the new No. 1 team in the AP Top 25.

"It's a great lesson for our guys. The score isn't always what the game is really about," Villanova coach Jay Wright said.

Booth put the Wildcats ahead with three free throws and followed with an assist on DiVincenzo's 3-pointer that made it 67-62 and finally gave them a bit of breathing room. Bridges, coming off a career-high 28 points against Gonzaga, went inside for a pair of tough buckets and a 71-64 lead that brought the Villanova fans to their feet.

"These guys have played in these games. They're not surprised," Wright said.

Johnson led the Explorers with 21 points and Stukes had 16 to help keep slim hopes alive of pulling off a stunner. The duo combined to hit seven 3-pointers and carried La Salle to the brink of victory.

"When we're out there and we started making plays, we felt like we could do that against anybody," Stukes said. "The shots started falling. We just had to play defense."

The Wildcats beat No. 12 Gonzaga by 16 points this week at Madison Square Garden and were expected to roll against the Explorers at the Wells Fargo Center. The foundation for their perfect record had come from the 3-point line; the Wildcats hit a school-record 19 against Saint Joseph's and buried 10 against the Zags. Against the Explorers, the 3s dried up in the first half. Villanova missed its first six attempts and missed eight of 10 overall in the half.

La Salle went the opposite direction in the first half. Shooting a miserable 29 percent from 3-point range this season, the Explorers went 6 of 12 to take a 38-37 lead. Stukes hit two straight 3s and his bucket a tick before the horn gave La Salle the lead at the break.

Villanova, La Salle, Saint Joseph's, Temple and Penn make up the city series field. The Wildcats have emerged as the class of the city and haven't been defeated by a Philadelphia-area team since Temple won on Dec. 5, 2012.

Big picture
La Salle: The Explorers lost for the 15th time in the last 16 games against Villanova. But a lot of teams lose all the time to `Nova. It's what the Explorers do from here that will define their season. They have two more nonconference games to shape up before they open the Atlantic 10 season Dec. 30 against St. Louis. The Explorers haven't made the NCAA Tournament since 2013 and will need more consistent performances like they had in the first half to get there again this season.

Villanova: The Wildcats win again. Even when the score is close, the outcome never seems in doubt against a city school. Los Angeles Lakers rookie Josh Hart, one of the stars of the 2016 national championship team, sat courtside and earned a standing ovation as the alum of the game. He trash-talked Johnson in the second half and laughed when the La Salle forward buried a bucket after their exchange.

Ouch
Villanova played without G Collin Gillespie because of a left wrist injury suffered in practice.

Up next
La Salle: Hosts Mercer on Sunday.

Villanova: The Wildcats finish the Big 5 season Wednesday at Temple.