No. 5 ‘Nova has title aspirations after 2008 heartbreak


When the Wildcats step onto Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia tonight to battle the Owls of Temple University, they will commence a season that appears destined to be defined by two things: high expectations and strong conference competition.

The ‘Cats were awarded a No. 5 preseason ranking in the Collegiate Commissioner’s Association Coaches Poll last week, making them the highest-ranked team in the Colonial Athletic Association after defending national champion Richmond (No. 2). Fulfilling the expectations that accompany such a high preseason ranking will be quite a challenge, however, as six other CAA teams also found themselves ranked in the top 25. No. 6 James Madison, No. 8 New Hampshire, No. 14 William & Mary, No. 18 Massachusetts, No. 20 Maine and No. 24 Hofstra all contributed in making the CAA the most heavily-represented conference in the top 25 of the preseason rankings.

With so many of their conference opponents receiving high rankings, the Wildcats’ schedule this season is inevitably a very tough one. When asked about the schedule in an interview last Thursday, Head Coach Andy Talley stressed the impossibility of singling out any game as a particularly important matchup. Every team that Villanova will face is capable of challenging the Wildcats. However, Talley did point to one section of the schedule that he anticipates to be an especially tough stretch. Over a four-week span from Oct. 10 to Nov. 7, the Wildcats will face New Hampshire, James Madison and Richmond – a difficult three-game stint that is intensified by the fact that all three games are on the road. Furthermore, just a week prior to the matchup with New Hampshire, Villanova will host William & Mary, a team that Talley calls the “sleeper” in the CAA this season. With these four highly competitive games condensed into a period of a little more than a month, the Wildcats will certainly have to be at their best to acquire a postseason-worthy record.

One game during which emotions are sure to run high is the Oct. 17 matchup against James Madison University. The Wildcats lost only three games last season, and two were to JMU. The first of those losses came on a Hail Mary pass in the final seconds of the their regular season matchup.

When asked about it almost a year later, Talley still expressed a kind of disbelief at that loss.

“4.5 seconds left in the game and that’s a ring,” he said. “If you win that game, then you win the championship.”

The second loss to JMU came in the quarterfinal round of the playoffs and presented yet another scenario in which Villanova saw victory slip away as it lost the lead with fewer than two minutes left in the game.

For senior linebacker and team captain Osayi Osunde, the memories of those two games are nowhere near forgotten.

“I don’t like that team anymore,” said Osunde. “It’s a hate for James Madison that is almost as great as my hate for [perennial rival] Delaware.”

The Wildcats will look to Osunde to turn those feelings into constructive leadership this season, as he heads a group of linebackers that Talley refers to as the strength of the football team. The biggest question for the Wildcats’ defense, on the other hand, will be at the defensive end position. This year’s team will not only be without 2008 All-American defensive end Greg Miller, but also Dave Dalessandro, another defensive lineman who Talley says provided a strong sense of support for every player on the squad. Talley could not help but to express some uncertainty as to who will fill the roles of those two graduated players, though senior defensive end Tim Kukucka is one player whom the coach expects to shine. Redshirt freshman Marlon Johnson, whom Talley named the most improved defensive player this past spring, will also be expected to step up, despite never having played a down for the Wildcats prior to this season.

On the offensive side, Chris Whitney will return as a junior to start at quarterback for the Wildcats. Talley anticipates that senior quarterback Antwon Young will be used about every third possession to give Whitney, who often runs the ball and takes more hits than the average quarterback, some rest. Young was the starting quarterback to entere the season last year.

Otherwise, much of the Villanova offense remains the same from last season. Weapons such as running back Aaron Ball and wide receiver Matt Szczur will return as juniors and receiver Brandyn Harvey will return as a senior, forming an experienced offensive attack that should be able to put points on the board.

When Villanova takes the field against the Temple Owls tonight, the team will look to take its first step toward fulfilling the high expectations that have been laid out for them during the preseason. If Talley can find answers to his questions at the defensive end position, and if the offense can live up to its potential, then the Wildcats should be able to find themselves exactly where they want to be: right back in the postseason.