No. 4 ‘Cats look for upset as they travel to No. 1 Richmond for CAA battle


Ladies and gentlemen, it’s the game you’ve all been waiting for. The Wildcats will travel to Richmond, Va., on Saturday to face the defending national champion Spiders in a crucial top five showdown. Richmond has gone undefeated through eight games in order to maintain the No. 1 ranking they have held since the season began. Villanova, currently ranked at No. 4 in the FCS, will attempt to hand Richmond its first loss since Oct. 11, 2008.

The Spiders are riding high entering Saturday’s matchup. Not only has their 8-0 start to this season pushed their overall winning streak to 17 games, but following their 42-14 beat down of Towson in Maryland last weekend, Richmond became just the third FCS team ever to earn a vote in the AP Top 25 Poll. The last team to do so was Northern Iowa toward the end of the 2007 season. Appalachian State also earned Top 25 votes that same year.

The Wildcats, meanwhile, have been playing some of their most dominant football of late (they have outscored their opponents 63-7 since losing their only game of the season to New Hampshire). The team is now coming off a bye week, giving them extra time to prepare for their road trip to Richmond.

“For a team that stays with a pretty regular roster of players, a lot of those guys’ bodies needed to heal a little bit,” says Villanova Head Coach Andy Talley. “I think the rest was especially good for Chris Whitney, Aaron Ball and our defense.  The bye week came at a very good time for us.

The Wildcats hope that their week of recovery will help them accomplish what no other team has been able to do yet this year: defeat Richmond. A win over the Spiders would even the two teams’ records, placing them in a tie for the conference lead.

Richmond and Villanova, currently the top ranked teams in the CAA, are also similar in their offensive reliance on quarterbacks who control the ball and are not afraid to run with it. The Spiders’ senior quarterback, Eric Ward, has provided his team with over 200 all purpose yards per game and 14 touchdowns so far this season.

“He is the prototypical quarterback that can run and throw,” Talley said of the Richmond quarterback. “He makes it tough on your defense because you have to defend not only the passing lines, but he will pull the ball down and keep a drive going with his feet.”

Richmond leads the conference in scoring offense, and Ward’s passing efficiency (third best in the CAA) is a major contributing factor. The most efficient passer in the conference, however, is the Wildcats’ Whitney. The junior quarterback has been intercepted only twice this season out of 130 attempts. Expect the duel between Ward and Whitney, two of the elite passers in the CAA, to have a huge influence on the outcome of Saturday’s game.

As for the rushing aspect of the game, Richmond relies on a single running back, while Villanova tends to give a variety of players touches. Senior back Justin Forte has gained an average of more than 90 yards per game this season for the Spiders, and averages over five yards per carry. While Whitney leads the Wildcats in rushing, running back Ball and wide receiver Matt Szczur have also contributed a combination of about 100 rushing yards per game. Ball and Szczur may see even more action on Saturday, as running back Angelo Babbaro, who averages about 20 yards per game for the Wildcats, is listed as questionable. The ability of Villanova’s CAA-best rushing attack (226 yards per game) to move the ball on the ground against a stingy Richmond rush defense (allowing just 71 yards per game) will be pivotal to the team’s success.

Saturday’s matchup is truly a clash of powerhouses: Richmond leads the conference in scoring offense and is third-best in scoring defense; Villanova leads the CAA in scoring defense and places third in scoring offense. While the Wildcats will be hungry to hand the Spiders their first loss and level the teams’ records at one loss apiece, Richmond will have home field advantage and the chance to avenge last season’s loss to Villanova – one of only three losses they suffered en route to a national championship.

“At the time we played them last year, we were just flat out better,” said Talley.

This year, however, the top five matchup is about as even as a game could be.

“They are very comparable to us,” Talley says. “Good offense, defense and special teams.  They have won a lot of close games, so I think they have a lot of momentum and are playing with a lot of confidence.

If the Wildcats can execute their rushing offense, while keeping the CAA’s highest scoring offense in check, they might just be the team to put a dent in that confidence.

If the Spiders hold strong at home, however, Villanova may have to settle for the possibility of a postseason matchup with the defending champion Spiders.