It’s always dangerous to make a projection after just one conference game, but after watching Villanova defeat visiting Rhode Island 35-9 in a CAA matchup between nationally-ranked FCS teams last week, one thing is abundantly clear – the winning Wildcats are likely to outperform their less than modest preseason prognostication.
A year after being selected as the 2022 preseason CAA favorite before finishing 6-5, Villanova was picked to finish seventh in this season’s CAA preseason poll.
First off, this is a talented Rhode Island team, one that will be more than capable of contending for an FCS playoff berth. The Rams entered the game 2-1 with the only loss 42-35 to FBS Georgia State. That is the same Georgia State team that improved to 4-0 with last week’s 30-17 win at Coastal Carolina, a team that was ranked No. 19 in this week’s HERO Sports Group of Five Power Rankings. In seventh-year quarterback Kasim Hill, Rhode Island has a field general with plenty of experience and talent.
Villanova is now 3-1, with the lone loss a 48-14 defeat at UCF the previous week. Even in that game, there was a silver lining. After being outscored 34-0 in the first half, Villanova played it even in the second, 14-14.
Maybe that’s a stretch, but it shows that the Wildcats kept fighting, despite the fact that the game was over at halftime.
And that fight extended into Saturday’s win over Rhode Island.
What made the victory even more impressive is that Villanova was playing without two of its best players, one on offense and one on defense. Missing their first game due to injury were sixth-year running back Jalen Jackson and sophomore linebacker Shane Hartzel.
Hartzell, who led Villanova with 74 tackles last year, was the Wildcats’ leading tacker through the first three games with 21. Jackson has rushed for 236 yards on a team-high 7.6 yards per carry and three touchdowns.
One of the reasons Villanova is able to withstand such injuries is due to its depth. Like many teams, the Wildcats have many players who have taken advantage of the extra season of eligibility the NCAA allowed due to COVID.
Villanova has 18 players who have already received their college degrees.
Leading the way against Rhode Island was fifth-year quarterback Connor Watkins, who completed 8-of-14 passes for 166 yards, no touchdowns, and one interception and rushed for 113 yards and three touchdowns on just 10 carries.
Villanova was able to withstand Jackson’s absence due to a deep group of running backs, led by fifth-year players TD Ayo-Durojaiye and DeeWil Barlee. Ayo-Durojaiye rushed for 103 yards, including a dazzling 63-yard touchdown run that extended the lead to 28-3 in the third quarter, essentially putting the game away.
Villanova is a dangerous passing team, but the Wildcats are only averaging 19 passing attempts per game because the running attack has been so strong.
The Villanova defense was just as impressive against Rhode Island. A total of 13 players had two more tackles, led by senior linebacker Brendan Bell with eight.
Defensive end Jake Reichwein, a transfer from Holy Cross, has been among the biggest additions to the defense, with 13 tackles, including 3.5 tackles for loss and a sack.
Of course, there is always the possibility of a letdown as the Wildcats have to hit the road to face UAlbany, a team that Villanova beat 31-29 on a walk-off 28-yard field goal last year in a wild win at home.
And that brings us to the CAA, which appears to be deep once again. William & Mary (4-0), which shared the title last year with New Hampshire, was the preseason favorite and has so far lived up to that billing.
Even with last week’s hiccup at Delaware in a game between nationally ranked teams, New Hampshire remains a viable candidate.
And Delaware showed by overcoming an early 18-point deficit to defeat New Hampshire 29-25 that the Blue Hens are serious CAA and playoff contenders. And again, nobody should count out Rhode Island.
That’s five teams, including Villanova, who at this point are contenders for an FCS berth, and who knows if another will emerge.
At this early stage, Villanova appears to be the most improved. The Wildcats don’t face William & Mary but must hit the road in late-season games against New Hampshire and Delaware. There will be plenty of challenges, but if Villanova continues to display great depth on offense and defense, then the Wildcats should prove the preseason projections to be clearly wrong.