Villanova Wildcats

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

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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.

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."

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.

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."

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 has 1 big advantage in NCAA Tournament pressure cooker

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Villanova has 1 big advantage in NCAA Tournament pressure cooker

VILLANOVA, Pa. — There were many reasons why Villanova was a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. And many more for why it's one of just two top seeds still standing.

The Wildcats do a lot of things well. They have depth, they can shoot from three, they defend, they are well-coached and they play hard. But perhaps their greatest attribute isn’t physical or psychological.

It’s experience. 

Of 'Nova’s core six, five were on the national championship team two seasons ago. Jalen Brunson, Mikal Bridges and Phil Booth played key roles on that squad. Donte DiVincenzo (injured) and Eric Paschall (transfer) were on the team but did not play. Having players that talented and that seasoned can’t be quantified. Not to mention a coaching staff still in tact from that title team. 

Between that run in 2015-16 and playing one of the toughest schedules in the country in a battle-tested Big East conference, there is nothing this group has not seen.

“Obviously the playing experience is most important but having coaches who have been in it," Villanova head coach Jay Wright said Monday. "Having guys like Donte, Eric, who were sitting out, be a part of that '16 run — that’s important, too. They learned a lot, they picked up a lot. To be able to share that experience with the young guys, I think that helps this team a lot.”

DiVincenzo agreed with his coach's sentiment.

“We’ve seen the biggest stage," the redshirt sophomore guard said. "Although myself and Eric were not playing, we were there and witnessed it and we know what it takes not only to win it but to get there.”

Next up for Villanova is the Sweet 16 and fifth-seeded West Virginia on Friday night in Boston. The Mountaineers begin guarding you in the parking lot. It is a 90-foot torture test of relentless pressure, end to end. A brutal matchup for any team.

But rest assured, Villanova will be prepared and won’t be overwhelmed. 

“No matter what the stage is, we don’t care," Bridges said. "You can put us anywhere, we’re going to play the same game. We tell the young guys, 'Don’t think of it as the Sweet 16, think of it as the next game.'"

It may be more than just the next game.

But the moment won’t be too big for this bunch that’s seen it all.

How Sweet it is — 'Nova crushes Alabama

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How Sweet it is — 'Nova crushes Alabama


PITTSBURGH — Mikal Bridges hit five 3s, scored 23 points and helped No. 1 seed Villanova put the field on notice that it's the team to beat with an 81-58 win over ninth-seeded Alabama on Saturday.

The Wildcats (32-4) are in the Sweet 16 for the first time since they won the 2016 national championship. Bridges, Jalen Brunson, Phil Booth -- and yes, The Big Ragu -- look every bit the favorite to make it two in three years.

Villanova plays Friday in Boston against the Marshall-West Virginia winner.

The sport is still buzzing from top-seeded Virginia's 20-point loss to 16th-seeded UMBC on Friday night.

Alabama (20-16) failed to make it two No. 1s KO'd in less than 24 hours.

After a tense first half in a round that has given the program fits, the Wildcats hit their first six 3s in the second and put on a thrashing up there among the most dominant under coach Jay Wright.

Bridges, who averaged 17.9 points and played his way into a likely NBA draft lottery pick, scored 1 point and missed all five shots in the first half. He found his groove once the second half tipped. Bridges scored the first 5 points of the half and then finished a thunderous alley-oop on a pass from Booth that made it 41-27 and sent the Wildcats wildly waving their arms in celebration headed into a timeout.

Bridges hit his first three 3s in succession to cap an 18-1 run and a Sweet 16 berth was in sight.

Brunson added a 3 to make it 56-31 and the rest of the half was simply a countdown to Boston. Villanova made 17 of 41 3s.

The Wildcats lost in the first weekend as a 1 or 2 seed in 2010, 2014, 2015 and 2017.

Villanova got a brief scare that it might add `18 to the list against Alabama.

The Wildcats live-and-die by the 3-pointer -- they say, "shoot em' up and sleep in the streets" -- and when it's on, look out. The Wildcats are as dangerous as any team in the nation.

When it's off, well, that's how they're so upset-prone in March. They missed eight of their first 11 3s in the first half and Alabama briefly grabbed the lead.

Donte DiVincenzo steadied Villanova with three straight 3s that brought a gasp from the crowd and gave the Wildcats a 22-15 lead. He threw in a fastbreak layup off his own steal and hit his fifth 3 of the half to make it 32-27.

DiVincenzo -- the redheaded guard nicknamed "The Big Ragu" -- scored all 18 of his points in the half. Villanova attempted 20 3s (made seven) out of 27 shots.