Villanova football shows championship character with bounce-back win over Elon
The No. 8 Wildcats are tied for the CAA lead ahead of Saturday's game vs. Stony Brook.
Villanova has aspirations of winning a CAA title, but a shocking 31-18 defeat to William & Mary on Oct. 30 temporarily threw that pursuit into serious doubt. The Wildcats had just been punched in the mouth, surrendering 258 yards rushing and turning the ball over four times in their first conference loss of the season. How would they respond to their first real sign of adversity?
A 35-0 victory against Elon the following week is a good place to start. Their bounce-back effort was led by graduate-student quarterback and captain Daniel Smith, who said that the performance against Elon spoke to the character of the team.
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“I think it just gave us a chance to reflect,” said Smith. “Not only did we have to look at what the opponent did, but we also had to look in the mirror about how we were practicing and preparing week in and week out.”
Smith backed up his words with action, bouncing back from a career-high four interceptions against William & Mary by accounting for all five touchdowns last Saturday. Smith finished with 238 yards and three touchdowns through the air and added another 45 yards and two touchdowns with his legs.
The Leesburg, Va. native credited a balanced offense for his impressive display.
“I think it goes back to what coaching was preaching about the offense,” said Smith. “Against William & Mary, we didn’t run the ball super effectively, but in this one our ability to run made the throwing game a little bit easier on me.”
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The Wildcats surpassed 30 points for the fifth time this season, but even a field goal would have sufficed given the Wildcats’ defensive effort. The 35-0 win was the team’s second shutout of the season and marked the first time in program history that Villanova had shut out multiple conference opponents in a single season.
“As simple as pitching a shutout may look, it really does take a lot to not allow a team to get into the red zone or field goal range for the entire game,” said graduate-student defensive lineman Malik Fisher.
Although Villanova leads the CAA in interceptions (14), their defensive line has been the major catalyst to only allowing 15.4 points per game, the second-lowest mark in the CAA. They only allowed 38 rushing yards against Elon, and on the year are giving up just 88.3 per game (second-fewest in the CAA).
“We take pride in our ability to stop the run,” said Fisher, “because once you do that, you earn yourself the ability to go outside and get after it in the pass rush. It’s like a merit type of thing.”
It is safe to say that the pass rushers have earned themselves plenty of opportunities to get into the backfield this season, as five players have multiple sacks. Fisher’s three sacks are tied for the team-lead with true freshman Bryce Ganious, which has sparked a friendly rivalry between the two.
“It’s definitely become a competition,” Fisher said. “For example on Saturday, after I got my sack, Bryce looked over to me and said, ‘I can’t let you beat me.’ And then two drives later, he got his own sack. We both celebrated for each other, but for the rest of the game we were both looking over at each other, fighting for the next one.”
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On Saturday, Villanova will host Stony Brook in their final regular-season home game of the year (1 p.m.). Although Smith and Fisher both hope to play at least one more on their home turf in the playoffs, senior day could be their last time taking the field at Villanova Stadium. Both fifth-year athletes agreed, however, that the festivities will mean a whole lot less if they don’t win.
“In every game, you just have to take care of your business and hope that everyone else does theirs,” said Smith. “But it’s obviously hard to ignore the fact that this will be my last home game of the regular season with Villanova, so it’ll definitely be special.”
Stony Brook enters Saturday’s game with a 4-5 record (3-3 in the CAA) but is no pushover, evident by their current three-game winning streak. The Wildcats will need to keep their focus, as they can ill afford to fall behind James Madison in the race for the CAA crown. The two schools are currently tied with 5-1 conference records, although Villanova beat the Dukes back in October.