Villanova returned home Saturday from two road wins ranked No. 8 in the STATS FCS poll and expecting a tough battle with No. 12 Maine.
Instead, the Wildcats comfortably beat the Black Bears, 33-17, in a game that wasn’t as close as the score indicated. A dominant first half by all three units allowed Villanova to overcome a late Maine push.
The Wildcats (5-0, 2-0 Colonial Athletic Association) are 5-0 for the first time since the 2009 season, in which they finished 14-1 and won the NCAA FCS national championship.
“Really proud of the way our team played today,” head coach Mark Ferrante said. “Big, physical game we knew it was going to be, and that early lead really helped us maintain the victory today.”
Graduate transfer Daniel Smith completed 15-of-24 passes for 213 yards and a touchdown. He ran in two other touchdowns, both designed runs from the 7-yard line in the first half, and was not sacked. The Wildcats led, 30-3, at halftime.
The offense rolled up 200 yards on the ground, as running back Justin Covington picked up 118 yards on 19 carries. The 5-foot-11, 215-pound junior has rushed for more than 100 yards in all five of Villanova’s games this season.
He was joined by true freshman DeeWil Barlee, who added 55 yards and a touchdown on 11 carries while filling in for injured sophomore running back Jalen Jackson. Ferrante said he hopes Jackson can suit up next Saturday at William & Mary, but Villanova’s offense was in good hands with the Episcopal Academy graduate, who also recovered a blocked punt.
“Any time you run the ball well, especially early on, it sets up for a lot of stuff,” said Smith, who added 34 rushing yards on six carries. “It’s always fun to score, but it doesn’t matter how we do it. We just want to get the ball in the end zone.”
The Wildcats’ 213 passing yards were highlighted by a 77-yard score by wide receiver Changa Hodge on their second possession. With a blitz coming, Smith quickly got the ball off and hit Hodge in stride, allowing him to outrun the secondary.
Villanova’s ball-hawking defense entered Saturday’s game with three forced fumbles and five interceptions. Against Maine, the unit picked up another fumble, two interceptions, and forced two second-half turnovers on downs that helped seal the game.
Four Villanova scores were set up by turnovers, including a blocked punt by Elijah Solomon late in the first quarter.
“Coach Ola [Adams, the defensive coordinator] ... really emphasizes disruption, which is getting the ball out and getting it when it’s in the air,” junior defensive lineman Malik Fisher said. “I think that’s how we come up with those plays. When you see it, just get the ball.”
Maine battled back to start the second half, with quarterback Chris Ferguson completing a 55-yard pass play to wide receiver Earnest Edwards that set up the Black Bears’ first red-zone possession of the game. Edwards then threw a touchdown pass to wide receiver Andre Miller on a trick play resembling the Eagles’ iconic “Philly Special.”
But in a tide-turning third-and-long play for the Black Bears early in the fourth quarter, wide receiver Devin Young dropped a wide-open, would-be touchdown at the goal line. Villanova pounced on the missed opportunity, as linebacker Drew Wiley burst through the line for a fourth-down sack, giving the Wildcats possession with a 30-10 lead.
Villanova was short-handed after starting middle linebacker Amin Black was carted off with an apparent knee injury late in the second quarter. Ferrante did not have information about the sophomore out of Imhotep Charter, who was emotional when taken to the locker room.