Villanova, Richmond open CAA play with tough tests

(STATS) – Mark Ferrante and Russ Huesman each have had high standards to live up to as first-year head coaches at their respective CAA Football schools. For Ferrante, it’s replacing a legend on the Villanova sidelines. In Huesman’s case, it’s maintaining the level of excellence of a Richmond program that’s made three straight FCS playoff appearances.

A new challenge awaits Saturday, when both take their maiden voyages into the often-treacherous conference waters against potentially dangerous opponents. Seventh-ranked Villanova (2-1) hits the road for a matchup with expected league contender Albany, while the No. 8 Spiders (2-1) host a much-improved Elon squad looking to take down a second consecutive ranked foe.

Though they’ll be making their CAA debuts as head coaches, neither game exactly rates as a foreign experience for either. Ferrante spent 30 years as a Wildcats assistant before being tabbed to succeed Andy Talley following his mentor’s retirement after last season. Huesman previously served as the Spiders’ defensive coordinator from 2004-08 and has plenty of big-game seasoning as a head coach, having built Chattanooga into the Southern Conference’s preeminent power prior to returning to Richmond.

“We always stressed to our guys when Coach Talley was head coach that going into league games you better strap it on and be ready to go, because it doesn’t matter who you’re playing in this league.”

Ferrante has reason to be wary of Albany (2-1), which entered the season 24th in the STATS FCS Top 25 and narrowly missed out on a postseason berth after a 7-4 finish in 2016. The Great Danes have held each of their three opponents – including FBS member Old Dominion – under 100 rushing yards and 300 total.

“I think their defense is kind of similar to us,” said Ferrante, whose team has yielded a mere 48.3 rushing yards per game and 2.0 per attempt thus far. “They don’t have the super size that we faced against a team like Temple, but they are running to the football, playing physical.

“They’re going to get after us defensively and we’re up for the challenge.”

Albany also possesses one of the CAA’s top offensive playmakers in now-healthy running back Elijah Ibitokun-Hanks. The 2016 All-American, who rushed for 141 yards and a touchdown in Albany’s 24-13 loss at Villanova last season, returned last week after missing the first two games recovering from last November’s ACL tear.

One advantage the Wildcats should have is at quarterback, where third-year starter Zach Bednarczyk continues to make major strides as a passer. The junior dual threat has completed 72.2 percent of his attempts in three turnover-free games, highlighted by a career-high 382-yard performance in the Wildcats’ near-upset of Temple two weeks back.

“Bednarczyk has really grown as a quarterback, as a passer,” Albany coach Greg Gattuso remarked. “When you add that to his ability to run, it’s a big problem.”

Huesman will have the Spiders on upset alert as well, as this Elon team doesn’t appear at all to resemble the ones that lost league meetings with Richmond by a combined 92-31 score over the previous three seasons. The additions of new coach Curt Cignetti and freshman quarterback Davis Cheek have infused life into an offense that was one of the nation’s worst a year ago, and the Phoenix (2-1) enter Robins Stadium soaring off back-to-back gritty victories over Furman (34-31) and then-No. 16 Charleston Southern (19-17).

“They’re playing with a lot of confidence,” Huesman said. “I think their coaching staff has them believing they can play and win, and they look really good. I’ve been extremely impressed with the play they’ve played.”

Richmond figures to be Elon’s sternest test to date, though. After keeping a pair of triple-option teams mostly in check in their two wins, the Phoenix now try to slow down one of the subdivision’s most potent air attacks headed by veteran quarterback Kyle Lauletta, the FCS leader in passing yards (1,142), touchdown passes (11) and total offense (396 ypg).

The Spiders’ offensive prowess was on full display last week, as the unit piled up 622 total yards and set a school record for points against a Division I opponent in a 68-21 rout of Howard. Lauletta also set a new program high with six touchdown passes while completing 24 of 27 throws for 290 yards.

“He’s doing a great job for us, no question about it,” Huesman said. “Not only with getting the ball to the right people, but his leadership, his approach to the game, his commitment to being great.”