The second round of the FCS playoffs begin Friday and for the first time in five years, the Villanova Wildcats have reached that stage of the tournament.
No. 5 seed Villanova will host Holy Cross Friday (7 p.m. on ESPN+) in the Wildcats’ playoff opener after earning a first-round bye. Following an impressive 9-2 regular season that ended with the school’s first CAA championship since 2012, Villanova will be looking to show it can compete on the national stage.
On paper, the Wildcats and the Crusaders are a pretty even match. Villanova averages 31.7 points per game and 15.1 points against, while Holy Cross averages 33.6 points for and 18.3 against. The Crusaders went 10-2, albeit against an easier schedule than that of Villanova. (One of the Wildcats’ losses came to FBS power Penn State, which was ranked No. 6 at the time.)
To advance to the second round of the playoffs, Holy Cross needed a touchdown with just 14 seconds left to defeat Sacred Heart, 13-10. Meanwhile, the Wildcats rested after closing the season by playing seven straight weeks.
“I hope it will help because it’s a long season,” Ferrante said. “It wasn’t like they were here going to class and just not having a game — they were home. I think that will help from a mental perspective.”
Senior offensive lineman Michael Corbi, who was injured and sat out the Delaware game, welcomed the time off to let his body heal for the playoffs.
“I think our advantage really comes in the form of just bodily rest,” Corbi said.
The biggest threat presented by Holy Cross is quarterback Matt Sluka, who is dangerous with his legs but also capable of beating you throwing the ball. The sophomore leads the Crusaders in rushing yards (762, fifth nationally for quarterbacks) and touchdowns (13). On passing downs, Holy Cross frequently rotates in Marco Siderman at quarterback. As a tandem, Sulka and Siderman have combined for 2,373 yards passing, 19 touchdowns, and eight interceptions.
“We always say we want to try to stop the run first and that is their strength,” Ferrante said. “So that’s something we have to be concerned with, stopping their quarterback’s running attack and be able to defend the pass as well. But the goal is to always stop the run first and make the team one dimensional.”
Villanova’s Daniel Smith will also need to have a good day. The graduate student, who has been up and down this season, has accounted for almost 2,400 total yards and 29 touchdowns but has yet to win a playoff game. If Smith can connect with his No. 1 red-zone target Jaaron Hayek, as he has in each of the Wildcats’ last four games, then Villanova should be in a good position to get the win. Hayek, who has eight touchdown catches this season, and Rayjoun Pringle, who leads the team in receiving yards with 688, form a 1-2 punch that could pose problems for Holy Cross’ defense.
Historically, Villanova holds the upper hand, going 12-6 all-time in games against the Crusaders. However, the two teams have not met since 2009 in a first-round playoff game that Villanova won, 38-28.
For Villanova, the road to a bigger prize, the FCS Championship, begins. Players like Corbi, who were on the team for the 45-44 first-round defeat to Southeastern Louisiana in 2019, remember the heartbreak of losing in the playoffs. According to Corbi, in 2019 the team was too caught up in making the playoffs that they lost, a mistake they do not plan to make again.
“A lot of us remember how that feels,” Corbi said. “So we’re definitely going to make a deep run. We’re definitely going to contend for that title. And we’re going to do anything we can to get there.”
This week’s example of why it pays to shop around. On Wednesday, Villanova was -13 to Holy Cross for Friday’s FCS playoff game. At Caesars, those odds were -110. At Parx, the odds were -120. In other words, bettors hoping to win $25 on Villanova would have to put up $27.50 at Caesars or $30 at Parx.
Ed Barkowitz contributed to this article.