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The best symbol of Villanova’s play at Penn State? The punter | Mike Jensen

Not a winning performance for the Wildcats, but never embarrassing.

Villanova quarterback Daniel Smith tripped up by Penn State defensive tackle PJ Mustipher in the second quarter.
Villanova quarterback Daniel Smith tripped up by Penn State defensive tackle PJ Mustipher in the second quarter.Read moreBarry Reeger / AP

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Nope, they didn’t shock the world. But the Villanova Wildcats didn’t shock themselves either.

The wrong end of 38-17 was symbolic enough of how things played out Saturday against No. 6 Penn State. Not ever realistically winnable, just not ever embarrassing after Penn State’s first eight-second drive.

“We got big-played to death,” Villanova coach Mark Ferrante said to open up his press conference, explaining the difference in one sentence. “There were probably six big plays.”

Despite the 105,790 in place, the atmosphere inside Beaver Stadium was not White Out craziness.

» READ MORE: Instant analysis from Penn State-Villanova

“No offense, but why would it be?” said one Penn Stater afterward.

“The leaf blowers were louder,” said Villanova quarterback Daniel Smith, referring to the crowd simulation devices used in practice last week.

Everything has to go right for even a nationally ranked FCS team like Villanova to pull out a game like this. If you want a symbol of how the Wildcats showed resiliency, start with the punter.

The punter?

Connor Watkins is not listed as Villanova’s punter, because he’s the backup quarterback. When all-CAA punter Nathan Fondacaro was hit this week with what the school termed a non-Covid illness, Villanova needed a Plan B for a game in which they would most definitely need a punter.

When was the last time Watkins had punted a football -- not even in a game, just the physical act of punting a football?

“Probably my junior year of high school,” Watkins said, explaining that he was not even a regular high school punter.

“I was the backup still,” Watkins said. “My best friend was the punter and he got hurt. For like three or four games, I had to punt.”

And rugby-style punting?

“I had never done that,” Watkins said.

Knowing Penn State star receiver Jahan Dotson would be on the other side waiting for his punts, Watkins practiced rugby-style kicking last week on the fly, working out the steps. He shanked one late out of bounds for 15 yards, but otherwise, his work held up, with eight punts for 277 yards, a 34.6-yard average. Dotson only had three returns for 20 yards.

“I was happy with the responses I was getting on the sidelines,” Watkins said. “They kept me up and proud. Obviously, I always feel I could do better. The last one I let get away from me a little bit. Overall, I felt good.”

Did the backdrop matter at all, with two decks past one end zone and three decks overlooking the other? There are no end zone seats at all at Villanova Stadium.

“Honestly, I kind of liked it,” Watkins said of the framing. “It kind of helped. I felt like the visual was better.”

Watkins did have to win a little punting competition this week. Sophomore William Bartel is listed as a K/P on Villanova’s roster. But Bartel is the backup kicker. He’s never been a punter either.

Nerves this morning … especially facing Dotson?

“I mean, obviously, there’s always some,” Watkins said. “He’s a dude. He puts on his pants just like we do. Yeah, he’s a hell of an athlete. We just tried to have confidence, and I did.”

The Nits star wideout showed he was a special dude on Penn State’s first offensive play, beating man-to-man coverage for a 52-yard score.

“Gritty, gritty,” Watkins, who had done a little kickoff and kick-return work as a freshman, said of his team’s whole 60-minute enterprise after that. “We wanted to play gritty football.”

They knew which team was bigger and faster. Watkins said they didn’t want the Nittany Lions also to be the team that played harder.

Watkins had about 50 family members in the place, less than an hour away near Williamsport, Loyalsock Township High. A family full of Penn State fans on a normal day.

“I grew up a Penn State fan,” Watkins said. “It was pretty cool.”

Watkins said he was proudest of his 44-yarder in the first quarter, no return. He heard boos once … but he was proud of that one, too, since while most of the 37 yards were on the ground, that’s how rugby-style punting is supposed to work sometimes.

You kept waiting for Villanova to try a trick pass with an actual QB out there punting. Never happened. Ferrante smiled afterward and said it’s in the playbook, just wasn’t used. A little reminder that while bigger games are ahead for Penn State, that goes for the visiting team, too, even if the leaf blowers head back to the maintenance shed.