Resilient might be the best way to describe the Villanova football team.
The Wildcats had reason to panic when Justin Covington, the leading rusher in the Colonial Athletic Association, left Saturday’s game against William and Mary late in the first quarter because of an ankle injury. Covington had run for more than 100 yards in each of the first five games of the season and was on pace for his sixth, with 53 yards in less than one quarter.
There was no panic after his exit. Freshman running backs DeeWil Barlee and T.D. Ayo-Durojaiye provided a spark, combining for 15 carries and 85 yards in the win.
Facing the possibility of missing Covington this weekend, the freshmen might have to repeat the performance. But this time, they would have to do it against the No. 2 rush defense in the Colonial.
The fifth-ranked Wildcats (6-0) will go on the road to play No. 2 James Madison (5-1) at 1:30 p.m. Saturday.
“James Madison has been the premier team in our league in recent years,” Villanova coach Mark Ferrante said. “I think their strengths are that they don’t have any weaknesses.”
The Dukes’ lone loss came against West Virginia, 20-13. They have dominated FCS opponents and rank at or near the top of most offensive and defensive stats in the Colonial.
Covington against the Dukes’ stout run defense would be an intriguing matchup, if he’s available. James Madison has allowed only one rusher to surpass 100 yards.
“I don’t have any update on Covington,” Ferrante said. “I’m not overly optimistic, but we’ll go through the proper protocol and let the doctors tell us what’s going on there.”
If Covington doesn’t play, Ferrante said, he is confident that his two freshman backs and sophomore Jalen Jackson can shoulder the load. Jackson and Barlee each have more than 200 yards rushing this season.
There is no doubt that Daniel Smith will be handling the load at quarterback. Smith has thrown for 17 touchdowns and averaged 204.7 yards passing.
Like the offense, the defense has had chances to panic, but the unit is led by captains Chucky Smith and Forrest Rhyne. Rhyne was named the CAA co-defensive player of the week after a career-high 15 tackles, 3½ for losses; 2½ sacks; and a forced fumble Saturday.
Ferrante said that starting safety Julian Williams will be out a couple of more weeks, which has placed Smith in a larger role in the secondary. Smith is known for his play on special teams, but like the running backs, he has eased Ferrante’s concerns about replacing a starter.
“He was not even a starter when he was voted captain. I think that tells you what our team thinks about Chucky Smith,” Ferrante said.
Key injuries on both sides of the ball have elevated the play of backups.
A sellout crowd is expected at James Madison. If the first six games are an indication, the Wildcats won’t panic. They have beaten two ranked teams and have three road wins.
“Those games showed the resiliency and the grit that our guys have,” Ferrante said. “They’re not going to be afraid of facing some adversity.”