When Saturday’s game ended, this Villanova season, and something far more, came to a close: a mini-era of Villanova football. So many of the guys who had ensured that the transition of head coaches on Lancaster Avenue — College Football Hall of Famer Andy Talley to his longtime assistant Mark Ferrante — was a successful one … this was it for them.
“Sorry we’re a little late,” Ferrante, who took charge of the program in 2017, said to start the postgame press conference. “A lot of tears in the locker room, as you would imagine.”
A just result, this NCAA FCS quarterfinal inside Villanova Stadium, 35-21 for the visitors. Except for a five-minute spurt of late-first half Villanova offensive brilliance that produced two scores, the South Dakota State Jackrabbits controlled things by dominating the line play.
Halftime leads get to feel a little bigger since in real time they last longer. In fact, Villanova’s lead taken 44 seconds before halftime lasted only through one three-and-out offensive possession after the second-half kickoff, followed by a nine-play South Dakota State scoring drive, another Villanova series that stayed in Villanova territory, another successful Jackrabbits drive.
Down three cornerbacks to injury and illness, Villanova felt that, but it’s doubtful that full health would have produced a different result.
“We didn’t get the ball in the end zone in the second half and when you’re playing a team of that caliber — playing anybody at this point of the season — they’re going to be good,” Ferrante said.
Villanova’s virtuoso fifth-year linebacker, Forrest Rhyne, had another 21 tackles, but many were chasing down running backs after they had gained ample yardage. Of the opponents Rhyne had seen over the years, where did South Dakota State’s offensive line rate?
“Top one or two, for sure,” Rhyne said.
An All-American tailback for South Dakota State had gotten hurt. His backup ran for 174 yards, and the third-stringer, a freshman, was good for 64 more.
Asked what it means to lead FCS in tackles this season, Rhyne said, “Nothing … I mean we’re not No. 1 in terms of team. It doesn’t mean anything.”
At the presser, Rhyne answered analytical questions with analytical answers. Was he able to hold his emotions together in the locker room?
» READ MORE: Rhyne a maniac in the film room
“Uh, no,” Rhyne said. “I mean, just seeing guys that I’ve been with every day for five years break down, that’s just going to lead me to break down. Up here, I can, you know, talk the talk.”
Of those tears in the locker room, Ferrante said, “It wasn’t just the players.”
He talked about this era in which getting a degree often now means jumping into the transfer portal, moving on.
“We got 11 sixth-year guys that stuck through it, through COVID, came back and stuck with this program and this university,” Ferrante said. “I think that speaks volumes about this university and this program.”
Stinks today, Ferrante said, and is “going to hurt a little tomorrow as well.”
But earning a No. 5 national seed, and two home playoff games, plus the league title … “down the road, when we have our banquet, people will start patting these guys on the back and they’ll start knowing what they accomplished.”
Taking away a weird and abbreviated spring season where Villanova finished 2-2, the Wildcats won 19 games in their last two full seasons, the best two-season mark since 2010.
“They expected it of themselves, but I don’t think we had a lot of people outside of that locker room who believed in us,” Ferrante said. “As long as you believe in yourself, you can go a long way.”
That spring season provided some misdirection, since Villanova, while certainly trying to win games, had also intentionally played more young guys, sort of a cross between spring ball and a real season. With a slew of veteran stars, the Wildcats weren’t completely disregarded, picked to finish third in the CAA, which is usually good for an NCAA bid. (South Dakota State was the lower seed with three losses but had come into the fall ranked third nationally and beaten FBS Colorado State by 42-23 in the season opener. Vegas oddsmakers had the Jackrabbits as a touchdown favorite for this one.)
South Dakota State coach John Stiegelmeier, whose program is one of only two that has made the FCS playoffs each of the past 10 seasons, realized that while one reporter was at the postgame media conference from South Dakota, everyone else in the room was mostly waiting for Villanova’s contingent.
“I’ve told everybody, I think it’s one of the best-, if not the best-coached football teams I’ve ever watched on film,” Stiegelmeier said of Villanova. “I see guys doing the same thing over and over and over again. Doing their job over and over and over.”
Ferrante, whose team went 5-6 each of his first two seasons, points to his veterans. “Take a guy like Cov …,” referring to star tailback Justin Covington. “He’s been the heart and soul of this program. A three-year captain. Forrest, on the other side of the ball, a three-year captain. It’s rare.”
Had Ferrante talked to Covington yet postgame?
“I talked to him, yep. Yep,” Ferrante said. “He’s broken up. I don’t think he’s taken his helmet off yet.”
Probably has by now. Maybe this Villanova mini-era of excellence didn’t end until the last helmet came off.