The repeated sentiment expressed by Ferrante was pride in the team’s resiliency regardless of the opposition. After their victory against the University of Richmond and their most recent loss to Penn State, in both efforts, the coaching staff agreed that nobody quit until the clock struck zeros.
“They kept playing hard through all four quarters and did a really nice job,‘’ said Ferrante. “I liked that the guys never gave up and kept fighting hard against a very formidable and big opponent.”
Outside of the brownie points received from the coaches, Ferrante also believes that the experience against Penn State will help boost the team’s confidence for the rest of the season.
“It will give our guys some mental confidence, the fact that we were able to line up with this program and do some good things. It will also help that our guys think that we can line up and play just about anybody.”
Sitting at 3-1 overall and having won their sole conference game thus far against Richmond, there are many positives to take from the first four weeks of the season. The biggest may be the play of Wildcats quarterback Daniel Smith, who has continued to progress in his third season under center.
So far this season, Smith has completed 63% of his passes for 820 yards, and has 10 touchdowns compared to just three interceptions. The graduate student ranks in the top five in passing yards, touchdowns, and completion percentage in the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA), but Smith’s success shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. In 2019, Smith’s last full season (Villanova played a shortened four-game schedule last season due to COVID-19), he threw for 3,274 yards and 35 touchdowns, and rushed for another 457 yards and 12 scores. With 48 total touchdowns (35 passing, 12 rushing, 1 receiving), Smith led all of FCS in points responsible for as the Wildcats finished 9-4.
Prior to transferring to Villanova in 2019, Smith had built quite a resume at Campbell University. In just two seasons, he set school records for total offense, rushing touchdowns, passing yards and passing touchdowns. Between the two universities, Smith has racked up 10,781 total yards and 122 total touchdowns.
When Smith compares this year’s Villanova team to the 2019 and 2020 editions, however, he sees an even higher ceiling, thanks in large part to their performance in Happy Valley.
“We were right in that game with a top-tier program,” says Smith. “We feel as though we can compete with any team, so it’s less about the team on the schedule but the team in the mirror.”
Smith’s final line against the Nittany Lions read 20 for 34 with two touchdowns and a pick, with both touchdown passes coming in the fourth quarter. Junior wide receiver Rayjoun Pringle was on the receiving end of both, and although Smith credited his leading receiver, he also heaped praise on his offensive line for their start to the year.
“My line has worked their tails off so far. I mean, [Colin] Gamroth is one of the brightest dudes I’ve ever known. He’s saved my life on multiple occasions. [Michael] Corbi and [Kofi] Appiah always do an awesome job protecting me on my left, and [Nick] Torres and [MJ] Dumas always open up gaps for the run game.”
Smith’s strong relationship with his protectors up front proved to be important against Penn State.
“They definitely did blitz more than we anticipated early on, and they were playing a lot more man than they have shown on film,” said Ferante. Pringle did a good job getting past the secondary in the fourth, and Smith did a good job getting the ball on him. So, when we gave him time in the pocket, he delivered the ball where it needed to be.”
When looking at the opposite end of the ball, Ferrante’s primary concern defensively is limiting the big plays. “They did throw for 400 on us, even though we stopped the run game pretty well. But if you look at it, four of those plays accounted for 250 of those 400 yards, so we just have to play a little cleaner.”
Looking ahead, Villanova’s next contest will be against 3-0 James Madison. Although JMU may not have the explosive passing attack of Penn State, the Dukes will present plenty of problems through the air. JMU is led by sixth-year senior Cole Johnson, who ranks among the conference leaders in passing yards per game (281), touchdowns (11), completion percentage (74.1%), and has yet to throw an interception in 85 attempts.
While Villanova is off this weekend, JMU will face off against New Hampshire as they attempt to remain undefeated. For Smith and the rest of the team, they do not plan on changing their plans around to watch the game live.
“We’ll obviously watch the game during the week during film,” says Smith, “but we’re not overly concerned about JMU’s upcoming week because it’s not in our control. The only thing that’s in our control is what we take care of in practice leading up to it.”
After going toe-to-toe with Penn State last week, Villanova certainly won’t be intimidated by JMU or the remainder of the conference schedule that awaits them. As Smith said, Villanova believes they can compete with any team.