Not too long ago, Villanova’s defense was a major question mark on an otherwise strong football team. Over the past month, however, this veteran unit has stepped up and kept the Wildcats relevant in the Colonial Athletic Conference.
Last Saturday, Villanova (5-4, 4-2 CAA) held its opponent without an offensive touchdown for the third time in four games in its 24-3 win over Rhode Island (1-8, 1-5 CAA).
Four Wildcats intercepted passes from the Rams’ quarterback duo of James Caparell and Wesley McKoy, including senior safety Cameron McCurry. McCurry also disrupted Rhode Island’s offense with two tackles for a loss and a sack.
Junior cornerback Jason Ceneus grabbed his second interception of the season while sophomore linebacker Ed Shockley and junior linebacker Corey Majors also caught passes from the opposing quarterback.
The Wildcat defense allowed just 121 yards through the air, as Rhode Island was only able to gain 208 total yards in the losing effort.
In a total team effort, Villanova complemented its stout defense with an efficient offensive performance led by sophomore running back Matt Gudzak’s career-high 118 yards and a touchdown on just 10 carries.
Freshman quarterback Zach Bednarczyk chipped in 83 yards on the ground as the Wildcats totaled a season-high 284 rushing yards.
Villanova is 3-1 in its recent run of defensive dominance, dating back to its October 17 shutout of Albany. Although this has been the weakest part of the Wildcats’ schedule, it was still a great opportunity for Bednarczyk to gain experience as the starting quarterback and the defense to gather momentum heading into the team’s final two regular season games.
Those final two opponents – Richmond and James Madison – have the same number of wins (10) as Villanova’s last four opponents combined.
Richmond (7-2, 5-1 CAA) is up first for the Wildcats. The Spiders are at the top of the CAA standings but fell five spots to No. 12 in the FCS Coaches poll following their first conference loss of the season last weekend – a 30-25 defeat at the hands of New Hampshire.
Villanova’s pass defense would love to repeat the four interception performance it had against Rhode Island but will have a difficult time doing so against one of the CAA’s top quarterback’s.
Sophomore quarterback Kyle Lauletta is second in the conference in passing yards per game by less than a yard. He averages 273.1 yards per contest and has thrown 15 touchdowns.
His primary targets are wide receivers Brian Brown and Reggie Diggs who are first and third in the conference respectively in receiving yards per game. Brown, a junior, has caught 50 passes, five for touchdowns, and averages 123 yards per game. Diggs, a senior, has 46 receptions, four touchdowns, and averages 73.2 yards per contest.
Sophomore running back Jacobi Green balances the Richmond offense and has put up impressive numbers on the ground. His 933 rushing yards are good for second in the conference and his 12 touchdowns put him in a three-way tie for first in the CAA.
Green will be a tremendous test for Villanova’s talented linebacker duo of Don Cherry and Austin Calitro. Both are in the top ten in the conference in tackling and will need to be at the top of their game to slow down Green who averages 6.4 yards per carry.
Along with Cherry and Calitro, the Wildcats will need to put pressure on Lauletta and force him to make mistakes. The Wildcats are eighth in the CAA with just 17 sacks on the season and will need to improve in that area to prevent the Spiders from throwing the ball successfully.
Villanova’s offense has been driven by its rushing attack over the last four games. The Wildcats have averaged 222 yards per game in that stretch, led by Bednarczyk and a variety of other runners.
Javon White, the team’s leading rusher, has not had a carry since suffering an injury against Towson and Oct. 24, but Gudzak and senior Gary Underwood have filled in nicely behind Bednarczyk.
Gudzak has set a career-high in rushing yards in two of his last three games for the Wildcats while Underwood has been a dynamic option out of the backfield that adds a different dimension to Villanova’s playbook. He has combined to run, catch, and even throw for 539 yards and five touchdowns this year and is second on the team with 28 receptions.
The Spiders picked up a one-point victory when the teams met in Richmond last season that snapped a seven-game Villanova win streak. The Wildcats will be on the hunt for redemption this Saturday in their regular season home finale.
Saturday’s game will highlight Villanova’s Homecoming festivities and is scheduled to begin at 3:30 p.m.