This week, not lost in the ESPN Gameday shuffle (not an eccentric 1980s dance, by the way), Villanova stands tall as the capable opponent of FCS defending champion James Madison. Nationally, few have talked about the Wildcats' stellar job of coping with injuries and still playing stifling defense. Maybe it's time attention is paid to that, as this could end up being a slobber knocker of a game after all the morning hoopla.
COMPARISON: James Madison vs. Villanova, by the numbers
Linebacker Ed Shockley and cornerback Malik Reaves are the top two tacklers on the team, with Jeff Steeb right behind them in third, doubling as the leading sack man. HERO Sports preseason All-American safety Rob Rolle may be injured, but true freshman Jaquan Amos has stepped up and has lived up to his recruiting reputation, even returning a fumble 99-yards for a score. Trey Johnson has been a pass break-up machine, and it just goes on and on from there. Even without the FCS' top 2017 NFL draft pick (Tanoh Kpassagnon, 2nd round in April), this defense has held firm.
It is the No. 2 rushing defense in the FCS nation, giving up a paltry 50 yards per game, while giving up only 13.2 points per game — good for No. 6 in the nation. FBS Temple knows about it, needing a last-second field goal to eek out a 16-13 win at Lincoln Financial Stadium in Philadelphia to beat its age-old rival in many sports.
James Madison was held to a season-low 20 points by the Wildcats last year. The ACC's North Carolina didn't hold the Dukes to that low a total last year, and neither did five-time defending national champion North Dakota State.
In other words — the ESPN circus may be in Harrisonburg, Va. this weekend, but there's a pretty good game about to throw down a few hours after Lee Corso picks the winner by donning a mascot's likeness, or dresses up like the fourth president of the United States and issues proclamations. James Madison won't be running away with this one, if history holds true.
"I think its just something we pride ourself on, our brand, when you think of a good defense — fast, physical and tough," Shockley told HERO Sports. "If we do those three things, it carries on with our defense, no matter who is playing or who doesn't … It's a mentality we try to carry to not let anybody run on us, and we have a very talented secondary so we can stop the run, force them to pass it and let those guys make plays."
Villanova DB Malik Reaves is the 'Cats' 2nd leading tackler (Villanova athletics)
Reaves (seen above) said it's a collective mentality. At a lot of schools, it's about the quarterback and how many points are scored and the defense holds on for dear life and hopes to hold the opposition to just a tad bit less to produce a win. That's not how it works at Villanova. The defense keeps this program in games, and that's something to keep an eye on this weekend. James Madison's offense is stellar, Villanova's defense is stellar.
Something will have to give.
"I think it's just the way we practice every day, the coaching and everybody wants to get better … I just think we keep getting stronger and stronger," Reaves told HERO Sports. "We pride ourselves on defense, we're real physical. We love being on the field … competing with any team, all the time. All 11 of us, the backups, we're just real competitive."