Villanova at No. 6 Penn State
Saturday at noon, Beaver Stadium, State College
Line: No line, according to Odds Shark
Records: Villanova, 3-0; Penn State, 3-0.
TV/Radio: Big Ten Network; WCAU-AM (1210),
Coaches: Villanova, Mark Ferrante (fifth season, 24-18); Penn State, James Franklin (eighth season, 63-28).
Series: Penn State leads, 5-3-1. The Wildcats have won three straight, including a 20-14 win in their most recent meeting in 1951.
No time to rest
One surprising observation about last week’s Beaver Stadium White Out was the large number of orange-clad Auburn fans in the house. Villanova could come close or surpass that number on Saturday, if the enthusiasm and excitement from the Main Line this week was any indication.
This is the 14th time in the last 16 seasons that the Wildcats of FCS will play an FBS team. They are 4-19 against the big boys, with three wins over Temple and one at Rutgers. Perhaps their most memorable game against an FBS opponent came in 1998 when the Cats almost pulled out a victory at Pittsburgh, thanks to Brian Westbrook’s 428 all-purpose yards, but ultimately fell short, 48-41.
Penn State head coach James Franklin knows the numbers for the Wildcats: A one-point loss to Syracuse in double overtime in 2014, losses by five at Connecticut in 2015 and by three at Temple in 2017.
“We’ve got to be prepared,” Franklin said. “We have a lot of respect for their program and their university. They’ve made it to the playoffs 13 times. They’ve won a national championship. Coach [Mark] Ferrante does a great job. We’ve been really impressed with them.”
Much like they did against Auburn last week, the Nittany Lions will face a defense that’s at or near the top in most categories, including total defense (184.7 yards per game, second in FCS) and points allowed (11.0, eighth). Yes, it’s FCS competition, but Penn State has noted the opposing talent.
What to expect
Experienced quarterbacks. Villanova’s Dan Smith and Penn State’s Sean Clifford are each in their third starting seasons. Their performances last week showed why they are the unquestioned leaders of their respective teams. Smith rallied the Cats from a 27-13 deficit with 9:02 to play by running for a touchdown and passing for two, including the 47-yard game-winner with 38 seconds to play, in a 34-27 win over Richmond. Clifford completed 28 of 32 passes, including 12 of 12 in the second half, for 280 yards and two touchdowns as the Lions defeated Auburn, 28-20, for their second win over a ranked team this year.
Hungry defenses. The Nittany Lions continue to hold a plus-5 turnover margin, seventh in FBS and second in the Big Ten, with four interceptions and two fumble recoveries. Their defense has allowed only four touchdowns and two field goals in the opponent’s 11 trips into the red zone, with three takeaways, a turnover on downs and a blocked field goal. Villanova, meanwhile, leads FCS in turnover margin (plus-8), turnovers gained (11) and interceptions (eight). Senior cornerback Christian Benford has an FCS-high four interceptions, one resulting in a touchdown, and has picked off 11 passes in his career. The Wildcats hold a 45-13 advantage in points off turnovers.
The other guys
What’s the rush? The Wildcats have shown balance on offense averaging almost 213 rushing yards and 242 yards through the air. Graduate student Justin Covington has rushed for 307 yards – tops in the CAA – and ranks 11th in FCS at 102.3 yards per game. The Cats’ ground game slowed a little last week, going for 130 yards after games of 275 versus Lehigh and 233 against Bucknell, but it’s still potent and could have some success against a Penn State defense that allows almost 144 rush yards per game.
Defensive test. Villanova hasn’t seen anything like Penn State’s up-tempo offense through three games, but the numbers the Nittany attack has put together have been impressive – 29.3 rushing yards per game (third in FCS), 155 yards passing (19th) and 184.7 yards total defense (second). Senior All-CAA linebacker Forrest Rhyne leads in tackles with 13 and grad defensive lineman Malik Fisher and senior linebacker Amin Black have combined for seven tackles for loss.
Keys to the game
Areas of improvement. Penn State has done a lot well in getting to 3-0 and No. 6 in the rankings, but two areas of concern must be addressed. The rushing attack has accounted for only 128 yards per game, 101st in FBS. The Nittany Lions made a big defensive stop with 3:08 left against Auburn, but were unable to run out the clock, giving the Tigers one more chance to tie the game. Franklin wants that aspect of the offense to be better. The second area is sacks, where the Lions, who recorded 45 sacks in 13 games two years ago, enter Saturday with three in three games. Obviously, they can’t let a quarterback of Smith’s talent level have all day to find a receiver, so it’s likely more blitzes are coming.
It’s noisy in here. Smith played before a sellout crowd of 12,001 last week at Villanova Stadium, but it’s nothing like he’ll experience Saturday when Penn State welcomes more than 100,000 home fans. Franklin said Tuesday that only 1,500 tickets remained for the game, so a sellout of more than 107,000 is possible. Ferrante said earlier this week that the Wildcats would pipe noise into their practice facility to have some idea what the decibel level will be like in Happy Valley, but Nova’s focus will be tested.
Sticking to business. Speaking of focus, the Lions must be wary of their second “trap” game of the season. They were successful the first time they faced a potential slump after a big win, easily taking care of Ball State in-between their contests against ranked teams Wisconsin and Auburn. Now coming off an emotional White Out effort a week ago, the team must avoid looking ahead to what shapes up as a payback opportunity against Indiana next week.