Towson-'Nova matchup an early referendum for both teams
There's not a whole lot of distance between the Villanova and Towson campuses, and the same can be said about their football programs.
Both expected CAA Football contenders had their 2015 seasons play out in strikingly similar fashion. Each struggled in the first half while besieged by a slew of key injuries, re-emerged as dangerous opponents down the stretch and ultimately fell a little short of an FCS playoff berth.
Parallels also exist through the first two weeks of this campaign, with both opening with one-sided road losses to quality FBS schools and rallying for hard-earned home wins last Saturday. Towson overcame an 18-point first-half deficit to beat Saint Francis 35-28, while the 21st-ranked Wildcats escaped with a 26-21 victory over Lehigh on Javon White's short touchdown run with 4:20 remaining.
Those uneven performances have both coaches still unsure of what exactly they have entering Saturday's meeting at Villanova Stadium (3:30 p.m. ET), the first major matchup on the conference calendar.
“Right now, I think our team has a long way to go,” said Andy Talley after Villanova went 2 for 10 on third downs and committed eight penalties against Lehigh. “We are undisciplined at times.”
Rob Ambrose had a simple explanation for the Tigers' early problems against a Saint Francis squad that played now-No. 7 Montana tough in its opener, stating his team sleepwalked through the first half before putting up 25 unanswered points behind backup quarterback Ellis Knudson.
“We played very hard in the second half,” he said. “We played well, we played together, we played the way we're supposed to be. If we can play four quarters like that we'll be a good football team.”
Stepping in for an injured Morgan Mahalak, Knudson ran for a 20-yard touchdown and threw two long TD passes to Christian Summers, including a 43-yard strike that snapped a 28-28 tie with 2:21 left. The redshirt sophomore amassed 191 of his 301 passing yards after halftime.
Knudson seems likely to get a chance to further prove himself with Mahalak's ailing shoulder putting the Oregon transfer's availability for Saturday's game in serious doubt.
His first career start figures to be a highly challenging and pressure-packed assignment, as Villanova has won 10 of 12 conference home games since a 49-25 loss to the Tigers in 2012 and traditionally fields one of the league's stingiest defenses. And considering both schools have not made the playoffs in the same season during the CAA era, Saturday's loser could very well be staring at an uphill climb to reach the postseason.
Knudson can draw from last week's stellar relief stint and his obvious rapport with Summers, who grew up less than 10 miles from the Villanova campus. The senior receiver is coming off a breakout 232-yard effort on just six catches.
“I was with Ellis all summer before Morgan even got here, so we just have that connection,” Summers said. “So there's no difference, I don't feel, at all.”
The Wildcats allowed Lehigh's Troy Pelletier to total 121 yards on 13 receptions and have played the first two weeks without All-CAA cornerback Jason Ceneus for undisclosed reasons. The unit still held Pittsburgh's formidable ground game to 86 yards and sealed Talley's 250th career win with a fourth-down stop in the final minute last week.
“I always feel good when the game is on the line and it's in the hands of our defense because that's where our strength is right now,” Talley said.
Villanova's rushing attack was a clear asset as well against the Mountain Hawks, with White recording a career-high 155 yards on 23 carries and the Wildcats accumulating 396 as a team, their highest single-game output since the 2009 national championship season.
Throwing the ball has been a greater issue with Zach Bednarczyk averaging under four yards per attempt and managing only 56 yards on 6-of-13 passing against Lehigh.
Bednarczyk had two interceptions returned for touchdowns in last year's encounter with Towson, accounting for the difference in a 28-21 Tigers' victory. Villanova had won six of the previous eight meetings, including three of four at home.
SPIDERS HEAD TO STONY BROOK WITH EMPTIER BACKFIELD
Towson isn't the only CAA team dealing with an injury to an important offensive player. Elon quarterback Connor Christiansen underwent season-ending surgery after hurting his left shoulder in the Phoenix's season-opening defeat to Gardner-Webb and Richmond lost leading rusher Gordon Collins to a torn ACL in last week's 34-0 romp over Norfolk State. Collins played a large role in the Spiders' 37-20 Week 1 stunner over Virginia by rushing for a career-high 114 yards on 13 carries and ripping off a back-breaking 55-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter.
The news leaves the second-ranked Spiders short on experience at running back entering Saturday's CAA lid-lifter at Stony Brook (12 p.m. ET). True freshman Xavier Goodall and sophomore Deontez Thompson will be called upon to fill the void, a duo which has combined for 118 yards and 22 carries at the collegiate level.
Despite the pair's limited track record, Richmond coach Danny Rocco insisted the game plan won't change against the Seawolves, who return seven starters from a defense that held opponents to a conference-low 104.6 rushing yards per game in 2015.
“We're going to find ways to run the ball. We've got our schemes and we're going to stay true to who we are and what we do,” Rocco said. “(Goodall and Thompson) are both young but they're both talented. They're both very capable.”
Rocco will still have the Spiders on upset alert. Stony Brook already owns a win at home over an opponent ranked in the STATS FCS Top 25, having edged then-No. 19 North Dakota 13-9 in the Sept. 1 opener, and its rugged defense kept Temple to 301 total yards last week.
The offense hasn't followed suit, though. The Seawolves have mustered a mere 354 total yards through two games and are averaging a measly 1.6 yards per rush attempt. They finished 0 for 13 on third-down conversions in the 38-0 loss to Temple.
Coach Chuck Priore knows that kind of production won't cut it against a potent Richmond team that features the reigning CAA Offensive Player of the Year in quarterback Kyle Lauletta and All-America receiver Brian Brown, not to mention a defense that shut down Virginia's run game and yielded just 122 total yards to Norfolk State.
“I think they're the best FCS team we've played against,” Priore said. “We've been in the playoffs – we played Sam Houston State, who was No. 2 in the country at that time – I think this team is more complete. They can do everything well on both sides of the ball.”
Rocco and Priore have an extensive history against one another, having split four meetings from 2008-11 when Rocco was at Liberty and Stony Brook in the Big South. The Flames lost both visits to LaValle Stadium, though Rocco guided Richmond to a 39-31 win there in 2013.
“He'll have his team ready to play, that's one thing that I know is a given,” Rocco said. “So we're going to have to certainly be at our best here to get a road win.”
DUKES, BLUE HENS HOPING TO FOLLOW RICHMOND'S LEAD
After starting off their seasons with a pair of easy wins, the competition is about to become a little steeper for James Madison and Delaware. The 11th-ranked Dukes visit high-powered North Carolina (3:30 p.m. ET) and the Blue Hens travel to Wake Forest (6:30 p.m. ET) on Saturday for the last two of five 2016 matchups involving CAA members and ACC schools.
Expect points to be plentiful in JMU's third-ever meeting with the Tar Heels. The Dukes have racked up a Division I-leading 136 in blowout home victories over overmatched foes Morehead State and Central Connecticut State, while North Carolina (1-1) averaged 40.7 per game during an 11-win 2015 campaign under spread offense guru Larry Fedora. The Tar Heels had 17 in the final 12 1/2 minutes to pull away for a 48-23 win at Illinois last week.
In contrast, defense has been the early calling card for Delaware and Wake Forest (2-0). The Blue Hens have held both Delaware State and Lafayette under 200 total yards and the Demon Deacons limited Duke to 37 rushing yards in last Saturday's 24-14 win to achieve their first 2-0 start since 2012. Delaware's run-based offense has churned out 671 yards on the ground through the first two weeks, though it will be without top back Wes Hills after he injured his elbow on the initial drive of last week's 24-6 victory at Lafayette.
The Blue Hens will attempt to end a six-game losing streak to FBS opponents and earn their first such win since Joe Flacco led the way in a 59-52 shootout over Navy in 2007. Under coach Dave Brock, UD has been outscored 154-21 in losses at Navy, Pittsburgh and North Carolina over the previous three seasons.
JMU lost 42-10 in Chapel Hill during Fedora's first season in 2012 but does own two wins over the ACC, most notably its 21-16 upset of nationally ranked Virginia Tech in 2010. The Dukes also dealt American Athletic Conference inhabitant SMU a 48-45 defeat last September.
The CAA went 1-2 against the ACC during opening weekend, with Richmond's ousting of Virginia following William & Mary's 48-14 setback at N.C. State and Villanova's 28-7 loss to Pittsburgh.
NOW RANKED, ALBANY ON A CRUSADE
Albany will take the field as a ranked team for the first time in nearly two years this weekend, though don't expect the Great Danes to enter Saturday's home opener with Holy Cross (7 p.m. ET) with swelled heads. The Crusaders (1-1) handed Albany a crushing 37-0 loss last October, getting three touchdown passes from standout quarterback Peter Pujals and yielding just 203 total yards on defense.
That defeat began a 1-6 slide to finish out Albany's 2015 campaign, but the young Great Danes have grown up and regrouped since. Those strides were evident in a landmark 22-16 season-opening win at Buffalo, and the maturity showed in a potential letdown scenario last week at Rhode Island, where Elijah Ibitokun-Hanks' 178 rushing yards and three touchdowns and fourth-quarter interception return touchdowns from Rayshan Clark and Michael Nicastro produced a 35-7 rout.
The Great Danes came in 25th in this week's STATS FCS Top 25, giving the CAA six ranked programs for the second time this season. Towson was 24th in the preseason poll before falling out after its 56-20 loss at South Florida on Sept. 3.
Holy Cross makes a second straight trip to a ranked CAA school, having fallen 39-28 to No. 22 New Hampshire last Saturday. Pujals threw for 427 yards and three more touchdowns, but the Crusaders surrendered 552 total yards and allowed the final 20 points to blow a 28-19 third-quarter lead.
This weekend's other games involving CAA teams (all times Eastern):
Rhode Island (0-2) at Harvard (0-0), Friday, 7 p.m.
Fayetteville State (0-2) at Elon (0-2), Saturday, 6 p.m.
Norfolk State (1-1) at #13 William & Mary, Saturday, 6 p.m.
#22 New Hampshire (1-1) at Dartmouth, Saturday, 7 p.m.