VILLANOVA, Pa. - The first CAA Football game of the season is on tap for No. 7 Villanova (2-1) this weekend, and for only the seventh time in the last 31 years the Wildcats will be playing their conference opener on the road. Saturday night’s game between the Wildcats and Albany (2-1) kicks off at 7 p.m. at Tom & Mary Casey Stadium. This is only the second trip to New York’s capital city for Villanova, which has won three previous meetings overall since the Great Danes joined CAA Football.
Both teams come into Saturday night’s game having won two of their three non-conference games. In the Wildcats home opener last weekend, two separate bursts in the second quarter fueled a dominant 59-0 victory over Lafayette. The final score marked Villanova’s highest scoring output in nearly 10 years and was also the team’s fourth shutout in the last five seasons. The dominant performance featured two defensive touchdowns on interception returns as well as a punt return for a score.
“I am really pleased with our team across the board,” Wildcats head coach Mark Ferrante said about the team’s development through the first three games of the season. “Offensively, we have been striving to play consistently across the board and I think we have established that right now. Defensively, we are playing fast and physical.”
Villanova was the top-ranked defensive team in FCS football last season in both scoring defense and total defense, and it also ranked fourth in the nation in rushing defense. Despite graduating some of the key members from that defensive unit, the Wildcats have picked up right where they left off. Through the first three games of the season, Villanova has held the opposition to just 48.3 rushing yards per game and an average of only 2.0 yards per carry. In last week’s win over the Leopards, the Wildcats recorded their first game since 2009 holding a team to negative rushing yards.
Senior linebacker Ed Shockley (Millville, N.J.) and senior cornerback Malik Reaves (Jacksonville, Fla.) are tied for the team lead with 18 tackles through three games, while seven other players have all been credited with between 10 and 14 total stops. The defense as a whole is averaging 7.3 tackles for loss per contest, to go along with four forced turnovers (three interceptions, one fumble recovery). Freshman cornerback Jaquan Amos (Philadelphia, Pa.) and sophomore linebacker Keeling Hunter (Franklin, Tenn.) each had interception returns for touchdowns last week.
The offense has been similarly balanced, with five passing touchdowns and six rushing scores. Junior quarterback Zach Bednarczyk (Wallington, N.J.) has thrown for 828 yards on 72.2 percent (57-of-79) accuracy so far in 2017, and his 382-yard passing effort at Temple two weeks ago was the highest single-game total for a Villanova quarterback since 2005. Bednarczyk has also rushed for two touchdowns of his own, while senior running back Matt Gudzak (Toms River, N.J.) and senior tight end Ryan Bell (Basking Ridge, N.J.) have each found the end zone three times.
Villanova has gotten a lift from its special teams play, including a 64-yard punt return for a touchdown by senior Taurus Phillips (Beacon, N.Y.) last week and the strong kicking leg of sophomore Drew Kresge (Douglassville, Pa.). After not seeing game action as a true freshman last year, Kresge has gone 12-of-13 on PATs and 3-of-4 on field goals to begin his collegiate career. He has made field goals from 32, 34 and 44 yards.
Albany is coming off a 28-14 win over Monmouth last week. To this point in the season the Great Danes have averaged 23.7 points per contest while giving up just 15.0 points per game. The team’s defensive effort includes holding its first three opponents to just 243.7 total yards per game and a 28 percent conversion rate on third down. Redshirt senior linebacker Nate Hatalsky has a team-best 36 tackles, including five tackles for loss. On offense, junior running back Elijah Ibitokun-Hanks returned to action last week and stands at the forefront of a balanced unit of offensive personnel.
“We are entering CAA play where every week teams are going to challenge each other, so we are very excited for our league opener,” Ferrante said. “Albany has a lot of skill back on offense. They got hit the hardest with the graduation of some of their offensive line, but watching them on film you wouldn’t guess that. It looks like they have been playing together for a while, not just three games. Their defense is kind of similar to us. They aren’t the biggest physically and they don’t have the super size that we faced against a team like Temple, but they run to the football, play physically and have most of their secondary and all of their defensive line back.”
Villanova will play four of its first five games this season on the road, with this week’s trip to Albany followed by a road game at Towson next Saturday evening.