Even though Villanova football, an FCS program, will be playing a top 10 FBS team this weekend, head coach Mark Ferrante is preparing the same way he would for any game.
“There’s a lot of excitement behind this game, but from our perspective, our week is not going to be any different,” Ferrante said. “We’re going to go out and have Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday practice the way we always do and try to prepare to the best of our ability versus the opponent that we’re playing.”
The only difference, Ferrante said, is that they have incorporated some more noise in practice, to try and simulate a 100,000-person stadium.
That’s because this Saturday, that opponent will be No. 6 Penn State at Beaver Stadium, a venue that can hold 106,572 people. This will be the first time the two programs have faced each other in 70 years. Technically speaking, Penn State has something to prove to Villanova, as the Wildcats currently own a three-game winning streak in the all-time head-to-head series.
However, the last time the two teams played was in 1951, and a lot has changed since then. Both programs enter the game at 3-0, but Penn State, a 29-point favorite, boasts the No. 6 ranking and is fresh off a marquee win over No. 23 Auburn. Meanwhile, Villanova, ranked seventh in the FCS rankings, narrowly won its opening Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) game against Richmond, 34-27. Penn State has the ranking, the fans, the talent, the depth, and the prestige. But Villanova has an opportunity to try and do something special against a Big Ten program, something the team is relishing.
“I’m not a moral victory guy, and our staff isn’t a moral victory type of staff, and I don’t think our players are either,” Ferrante said. “We want to go out there and prepare and put the best product we can on the field and see where the cards lay.”
Villanova certainly was not settling for a moral victory in its game last weekend against Richmond. It was the Wildcats’ first real test of the season following blowout wins over Lehigh and Bucknell by a combined score, 102-6. Against Richmond, the ‘Cats proved their commitment to playing until the final whistle, something that could prove useful against a strong Penn State team that is likely to take an early lead.
Villanova took a 13-0 halftime lead before Richmond answered loudly in the third quarter, when the Spiders scored 24 points, jump-started by a 98-yard kickoff return by running back Aaron Dykes. Richmond tacked on another field goal early in the fourth, but ultimately succumbed to three Villanova fourth-quarter touchdowns, courtesy of quarterback Daniel Smith.
“I think myself along with the entire offense were pretty frustrated with how the game was going until that point,” Smith said. “It just seemed like everything we were doing, even when we were moving the ball, we kind of negated ourselves. We couldn’t put points on the board.”
The Wildcats put those points up again with just five minutes left in the game when Smith pushed the ball into the endzone on a 1-yard run. A 44-yard touchdown pass to Jaaron Hayek soon followed. Then, with just 38 seconds left, Smith found Rayjoun Pringle in the end zone for the game-winning 47-yard score.
“For a few drives at that point we had been talking about how we needed to get going because, you know, we’re putting the defense in a bad position by not scoring points and putting them back on the field too quickly, how we need to pick it up and execute,” Smith said.
Part of the execution came from tight end Todd Summers, who helped swing the momentum in the fourth quarter. On the second play of a 10-play drive that led to that first fourth-quarter touchdown, Smith and Summers connected on a 33-year pass play.
“I hit Todd over the middle on a little seam route, and he caught the ball and ran down,” Smith said. “He got up, and he was yelling and, you know, Todd’s not someone you usually see get that excited, so I think that provided a big boost for the team. And from that point on we just got a rolling.”
Thus far, Villanova has relied heavily on its offense, having scored 136 points through three games (45.3 ppg). However, the Wildcats will not be able to rely on this alone on Saturday. That is because they will go up against highly-regarded Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford. This season, the third-year starter has completed 67 of 94 passes for 757 yards and four touchdowns. Clifford, combined with top wide receiver Jahan Dotson (three touchdowns this season), will be difficult to shut down. However, it’s a challenge Villanova’s defense is looking forward to.
“A lot of the players at the FCS level all feel that they should play at that FBS level.” Ferrante said. “To be able to walk into the second-largest stadium within the United States, and to go up there and play against the team that’s a top 10 team within our own state is tremendous.”
With this opportunity, Smith and his teammates are looking to make a statement, and show that they belong there.
“We think that we can play with them but if we can prove to everyone outside of here, not that it really matters, that we can we can play with a team like this we can go play with anybody in the country, especially at our level,” Smith said. “And then make a statement and try to make a run for that national championship after going through our conference gauntlet.”
This weekend will mark the 10th meeting between the Wildcats and the Nittany Lions, this time with Penn State the clear favorite. However, underdog Villanova will relish the opportunity to produce one of college football’s great upsets.
After 70 years of waiting, it’s time.