Stakes, emotions high when Villanova hosts JMU
(STATS) – Senior Day at Villanova will take on a whole new meaning this year.
When the Wildcats honor their graduating class prior to Saturday's showdown with fellow CAA Football powerhouse James Madison, they'll also pay tribute to the only coach the program has known since being reinstated in 1985.
There's still a real chance this won't be the last time Andy Talley walks off the Villanova Stadium turf, however, and the No. 9 Wildcats (7-2, 5-1) would make a playoff home game a virtual certainty if they're able to knock off the high-powered Dukes and win next week's rivalry game at Delaware in the regular-season finale. A sweep would give the retiring 73-year-old one more cherished parting gift – at least a share of the conference title.
“I'm pretty excited about the game,” said Talley, who'll hand over the reins to longtime assistant Mark Ferrante at season's end. “Thank God it's at Villanova.”
JMU (8-1, 6-0) has plenty to play for as well, perhaps more.
Sixth in the STATS FCS Top 25 and fourth in the FCS selection committee's latest rankings, the Dukes appear to have the inside track on securing home-field advantage through the quarterfinals of the playoffs, which they'll receive the CAA's automatic bid to if they win Saturday.
The Dukes will have earned it, having already beaten three teams (Richmond, New Hampshire, Maine) residing in the conference's upper half – all on the road.
“We've attempted to build this team from back in January to be a physical, hard-nosed football team, because those are the kinds of teams that win on the road, those are the kind of teams that win late in the season,” coach Mike Houston said. “I think our identity has changed, it's changed pretty drastically from last year. I think that's certainly helped in those road venues.”
That toughness was fully evident a week ago, when JMU twice overcame a second-half deficit to outlast Richmond in a 47-43 thriller and end the then-No. 6 Spiders' 11-game home winning streak.
Despite the daunting assignment of facing two straight top 10 opponents on the road in as many weeks, Houston isn't overly concerned about the possibility his team could be mentally drained off such a grueling game.
“Certainly there was a lot of emotion in that game. That being said, it's on to the next opponent,” he said. “That's kind of been our motto each week and all throughout the year, and I think the players have done a really good job of that. They'll understand the whole deal. I expect that they'll be completely dialed into a very, very good Villanova team.”
Houston's more pressing worry is solving a Wildcats defense that's among the stingiest at the FCS level. The unit, anchored by NFL prospect Tanoh Kpassagnon (34 tackles, 16 TFL, 7.5 sacks), ranks third in the subdivision in both total yards (268.0) and points (14.9) allowed per game. Villanova has yielded only one passing touchdown and four offensive scores over the last five games and came up with four interceptions in last week's 26-7 win at Maine.
“They have maybe the best player in the league with (Kpassagnon), he's a great player,” Houston said. “They're what you expect when you think of Villanova football. I think that we've got our work cut for us to move the football.”
Talley shares the same fears about a JMU offense that's been close to unstoppable all season long. Second only to No. 1 Sam Houston State in points per game (49.1), the Dukes have gained at least 430 yards in every contest and put up 31 points or more against each of its FCS opponents.
“We've got to be able to take some time off the clock and keep the ball out of their hands,” Talley said. “Richmond got in a shooting match with them, and Richmond has the kind of skill set to do that. I don't think we have the kind of skill there. I think we're going to have to keep the game in the teens or low 20s to have a chance.”
Talley can take some comfort in his quarterback's recent performance. Now fully over a concussion sustained last month, Zach Bednarczyk completed 23 of 31 passes for a career-high 326 yards and three touchdowns in the Maine win. The sophomore appears back in top form heading into an intriguing matchup with counterpart Bryan Schor, who's hit on a remarkable 79.2 percent of his throws for 858 yards and 12 touchdowns with no interceptions over a three-game roll.
“It just doesn't matter for either of these guys. It could be rain, sleet or snow, and they're going to perform,” Talley said. “They're both real good at finding people on the run, especially Bryan Schor. He's done a great job with that. I must have watched the JMU-Richmond game five times and continued to be amazed with how long he keeps plays going. I think it's a matchup of two really, really good quarterbacks and two football teams that are on a hard charge.”
Bednarczyk rushed for a career-high 157 yards and two touchdowns in last year's meeting with JMU, but committed four turnovers – two of which the Dukes returned for touchdowns in a 38-29 victory in Harrisonburg.
The home team has won six straight in the series, with the Dukes last winning at Villanova in 2008.