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Football Prepares for Toughest Test Yet: No. 1 SDSU

Brian Luppy/Villanovan Photography
Graduate running back TD Ayo-Durojaiye has rushed for 438 yards this season.

No. 8 Villanova claimed its ninth 10-win season in program history and finished the season undefeated at home by beating Youngstown St. in the second round of the FCS playoffs on Saturday.

Its reward?

A quarterfinal matchup with undefeated No. 1 South Dakota State in Brookings, SD.

The ‘Cats will take on the reigning FCS champion at noon on Saturday, Dec. 9. The game will be televised on ESPN.

A team doesn’t stumble into an undefeated season and a No. 1 ranking. The Jackrabbits have been elite on both offense and defense throughout the season. They rank fourth in scoring offense, scoring 37.9 points per game, and first in scoring defense, allowing 10.33 points per game. The gap between the Jackrabbits and the next-best scoring defense in the FCS, Florida A&M, is nearly a full full points.

The Jackrabbits’ defense allowed more than 17 points in two games this season, to North Dakota and Illinois St. The offense has scored 40 or more points in six of its 12 games.

On offense, the Jackrabbits are led by junior quarterback Mark Gronowski. He has thrown for 2,517 yards, 24 touchdowns and four interceptions. Senior running back Isaiah Davis leads the way on the ground for the Jackrabbits. Davis is ninth in the FCS in rushing yards with 1,192. He’s rushed for 100 or more yards six times, and has scored 14 touchdowns.

There is recent playoff history between the two teams. The unseeded Jackrabbits came to Villanova Stadium in the 2021 FCS playoffs and upset the No. 5 Wildcats to advance to the semifinals. Now, the ‘Cats have a chance to return the favor in the second quarterfinal matchup between the teams in three seasons.

“I think it’s interesting,” graduate quarterback Connor Watkins said on Selection Sunday, when asked about the possibility of facing the Jackrabbits. “It’s almost the polar opposite. Obviously, we didn’t win the national champion- ship, but they had to come down here and play us in ’21. It’s kind of ironic how it played out… If that happens we’re excited for the opportunity.”

The ‘Cats will need to have one of their sharpest efforts of the season to take down the Jackrabbits. The Jackrabbits are 8-1 at home in the past five playoffs, and have lost twice at home in the past three seasons. The Jackrabbits have not lost to another FCS program since December of 2021.

The key for victory for the Wildcats is to not let their offense become one-dimensional. The ‘Cats have already faced the best rushing defense in the nation in UAlbany, and were limited to 71 net rushing yards in a 31-10 loss. The Jackrabbits boast the second-best rushing defense, allowing a per game average of 90.5 rushing yards.

The problem with directly comparing the Jackrabbits to the Great Danes is that the Jackrabbits also boast a top-10 passing defense, which the Great Danes cannot claim. They allow 166.3 passing yards per game, seventh-best in the nation.

Not allowing the offense to become one-dimensional against the Jackrabbits will be the toughest task the ‘Cats have faced all season. The ‘Cats will have to rely on creating “explosives,” big plays that can either create scores or provide the spark on a scoring drive. Watkins and co. have been good at generating these throughout the season. Watkins leads the FCS in yards per pass attempt and sophomore receiver Jaylan Sanchez and graduate receiver Rayjuon Pringle are one and two in yards per reception, both with more than 25 yards per catch.

The Jackrabbits are not a team that one can methodically grind down. They are the best red zone defense and offense by percentage of scores.

They have an average turnover margin of .92, good for seventh in the nation. They don’t cough up the ball frequently, with just 10 turnovers lost this season.

The one area where the Jackrabbits aren’t elite or close to elite is penalties. They rank 108 out of 122 in fewest penalties.

The Jackrabbits will take advantage of every mistake that the ‘Cats make. The ‘Cats will have to be perfect, or as close to it as possible, to upset the Jackrabbits.

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About the Contributor
Owen Hewitt, Co-Sports Editor
Owen Hewitt is one of two Co-Sports Editors in 2024. Entering his second year in this position, he is a Communications major specializing in journalism. Owen is a Memphis native and a die-hard Grizzlies fan, although his main loyalty lies with Memphis 901 FC. When not writing about basketball or soccer, Owen can often be found on stage, performing as part of Villanova's improv team Ridiculum. Owen has many goals in life, including going into sports journalism as a profession, but his main goal — always — is to stay jitty with it.
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    JoeDec 8, 2023 at 2:56 pm

    It’s why we play the games Sometimes it doesn’t look good on paper….. we are gonna take our best shot ! Go Cats !!