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Football Falls to No. 1 SDSU in FCS Quarterfinals

Quarterback+Connor+Watkins+drops+back+to+pass+in+the+quarterfinal+loss.%0A%28Courtesy+of+Villanova+Athletics%29
Quarterback Connor Watkins drops back to pass in the quarterfinal loss. (Courtesy of Villanova Athletics)

BROOKINGS, S.D. – No. 8 Villanova was able to carry itself into the quarterfinals of the FCS playoffs by relying on its explosive plays.

All season long, there were long pass plays from graduate quarterback Connor Watkins to graduate receiver Rayjuon Pringle or rushes from graduate running back Jalen Jackson for big chunks of yardage.

It’s ironic, and perhaps a little bit cruel, that the ‘Cats’ season was ended by two explosive plays.

No. 1 South Dakota State got the best of the ‘Cats, 23-12, on a windy South Dakota Saturday. The ‘Cats finish their season 10-3, while the Jackrabbits continue their undefeated season (13-0) and move on to the semifinals.

Watkins threw for 74 yards and an interception on six of 18 passing. He added 50 yards on the ground. Jackson rushed for 67 yards and a touchdown, with his longest rush of the day being his 25-yard touchdown. Jacks senior running back Isaiah Davis finished the day with 192 rushing yards. 170 of those yards came in the second half. Graduate linebacker Danny Abraham led the ‘Cats’ defense with 12 total tackles. Senior linebacker Brendan Bell forced a fumble as well.

Two of the Jackrabbits three touchdowns were scored on explosive plays. The first was a blocked punt that was returned by the Jacks for a touchdown to go up, 10-9, in the first half. The second was a 66-yard rush by Jacks senior running back Isaiah Davis that was the final score of the game. It was scored with 12:34 remaining in the fourth quarter.

With wind gusts of up to 26 miles per hour blowing left to right from endzone to endzone, the game quickly turned into a game of field positioning. Punts and kicks were either blowing out of the end zone or dying in the air. Both teams were wary of their special teams’ efforts. Most punts were either fair caught or simply allowed to roll.

“The wind probably did have some factors in some of the decision making at times,” Villanova head coach Mark Ferrante said postgame. “But both teams have to play in it, so you can’t blame anything than trying to go out there and execute.”

A special teams miscue on the ‘Cats’ first drive of the game resulted in a negative-four-yard punt. The ball was kicked into one of the protectors. It set the Jacks up with prime field position, but the Villanova defense was able to limit the Jacks’ offense to a field goal.

Jackson found the end zone early in the second, but a missed PAT by graduate kicker Matt Mercurio set the score at 6-3.

The Jacks blocked a punt and scored to make it 10-9 with 4:23 to play in the half.

The ‘Cats out gained the Jacks 135-64 in the first half. The ‘Cats’ defensive front six was sharp in the first, holding Davis to 22 yards on 11 attempts. The unit recorded six tackles for loss in the opening half. 

However, the physicality of the Jacks started to wear on the ‘Cats in the second. They were out gained 279-84 in the final 30 minutes.

“They do a good job of wearing teams down, and we had a couple guys go down, but I think it’s just them,” Abraham said. “Hats off to the defense for the way we’ve played this whole year.”

The ‘Cats were able to string together a 70-yard drive in the second half, but it would result in a field goal after Watkins could not connect with senior wide receiver Jaaron Hayek on third and goal from the six.

Watkins tried to get the ‘Cats back into it early in the fourth, as he took a first down shot down the side of the field to Pringle. The pass was intercepted. 

“I think understanding the weather and understanding what the defense is thinking in those situations, we haven’t really thrown the ball on first down much, and then on top of that we were running the ball semi-effectively, we were getting a lot of man, so we didn’t anticipate them to change at all,” Watkins said. “I probably shouldn’t have tried to force it, but it happens sometimes. Definitely one I’d like to have back.”

On the ensuing Jacks drive, Davis would punch in a 66-yard touchdown. The Jacks went for two but failed, making it an 11-point game.

The ‘Cats would get the ball back one final time, but they would be forced to punt. The Jacks were able to pound the ground to run out the clock, and the game was finalized, 23-12.

It was the final game for the 2023 Wildcats.

“I’m proud as hell of every one of those guys,” Watkins said. “There’s no other group of men that I’d like to go to war with.”

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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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