While quarterbacks and offensive skill players are often praised for their crucial roles in winning football games, sometimes the biggest asset to a team is its special teams and the difference they make.
In 5-1 Villanova’s 17-10 victory over Albany last weekend, its special teams made that difference, scoring 10 points via a field goal and a blocked punt that was returned for a touchdown.
The key play came with 30 seconds left in the first half, when Albany punter Sean Ralls fumbled the snap deep in his own territory. Villanova linebacker Brendan Bell burst through to block the punt, which reserve running back TD Ayo-Durojaiye recovered and returned for a 15-yard touchdown. It put the Wildcats up, 17-7, at the half and completely shifted momentum to Villanova.
“Special-teams touchdowns don’t come so often, so just to have the opportunity, and then obviously to help my team win, you know, it ended up being a difference in the game, so it’s key,” Ayo-Durojaiye said.
According to Ayo-Durojaiue, Villanova puts a lot of focus into being strong on special teams and dedicates time in each practice to work on punt team and kickoff returns. The preparation allows them to take advantage of opportunities like this that end up making a difference in games.
“For the rest of the season, I’d like to see other special teams step up,” Ayo-Durojaiye said. “Our kickoff team, you know, I’d love to see us get a kickoff return touchdown, continue to do a good job on punt team, so I think that’s the key for the rest of the year is to try and make special teams the deal-breaker for everything.”
Ayo-Durojaiye’s touchdown was Villanova’s first special-teams touchdown of the season. While special teams had not come to the fore prior to Saturday, the unsung group made the decisive play on a day when the offense was held to 102 passing yards and committed three turnovers.
On Saturday, the Wildcats will host 5-1 Rhode Island in a rematch of a 40-37 overtime loss last spring. Between trying to avenge a loss and facing a ranked opponent (URI is ranked No. 18 nationally), this game will be a major test for the No. 5 Wildcats.
“I feel pretty good,” Ayo-Durojaiye said of the upcoming game. “I think the team’s internally motivated. We didn’t like how we played against [Rhode Island] in the spring, and I think we have an opportunity to, you know, put a stamp on this season and have an opportunity to continue to move forward and go 1-0 each week.”
The Rams will also have added motivation given they are coming off their first loss of the season, to Towson. Villanova’s defense will need to look out for Rams running back Justice Antrum, who averages 85.83 rushing yards a game, the third-most in the Colonial Athletic Association. That being said, special teams, by supplementing consistent strong play by QB Daniel Smith and the offense, will put Villanova in a good position to overcome the Rams.
“Special teams is an emphasis on our team,” Ayo-Durojaiye said. “We do it every day, we have a big meeting about it every day. Coach [Ross] Pennypacker does a really good job getting us ready, and then coach [Matt] Colangelo does the punt block team, so he did a really good job getting us ready that week, so I mean, special teams is probably the biggest focal point of the team, so I think it’s good to see plays like that happen in the game.”
While special teams are often overlooked, Villanova will hope Ayo-Durojaiye and Co. prove to be “special” for the second consecutive week.