VILLANOVA, THE defending FCS national champion, has gone on the road in the playoffs and scored 54 points against third-ranked Stephen F. Austin and 42 against Appalachian State, the tournament's top seed.

Obviously, the skill-position guys have been doing their thing. And Matt Szczur is back, after missing a large chunk of the season with an ankle injury. But someone has to block, and pass-protect. All those holes that folks have been running through just don't happen.

It all starts up front, in relative anonymity. Unless, of course, you are senior left tackle Ben Ijalana, who is projected as a second-round NFL draft pick.

In many ways, it begins with him.

"We're a tight team, a tight unit," said the 6-4, 320-pounder from South Jersey's Rancocas Valley High. "The skill guys always give us props. When they score a touchdown, there's like 2,000 pounds of beef running down the field to go celebrate with them. We get our due. It's nice when your teammates acknowledge you. But we're not worried about it. That's not why we're out there."

The Wildcats (9-4) are at No. 1 Eastern Washington (11-2) in tonight's semifinal. The winner will get Georgia Southern (10-4) or Delaware (11-2) for the title on Jan. 7 in Frisco, Texas. With tonight's game, the Wildcats have flown some 9,000 miles in 3 weeks. If they play one more, that number increases to 12,000.

"We did it the easy way last year [by playing three times at home]," said Ijalana, who was named FCS first team All-America on Wednesday. "So let's try to do it on the road less traveled. Or more traveled. Let's go to Alaska. It's on. Somebody grab me a furry coat."

The offensive line has played hurt, and continues to do so. Ijalana has a sports hernia. Brant Clouser, who has played alongside him for 52 consecutive games, has a torn knee ligament but has put off surgery until the season is over. Sophomore center Dan Shirey had knee surgery during the season. Freshman guard Josh Bucci has been hampered by a high right-ankle sprain. Sophomore tackle Chidozie Ekweozor had offseason knee surgery. The group lost sophomore Jordy Paulemon early due to some off-field issues. But since there's no real depth to speak of . . .

"It's just a testament to toughness," said Ijalana, who along with Szczur is going to the Senior Bowl in January. "You have to respect what we're doing. It's almost like we're playing for each other. I may be in pain, but the poor guy next to me knows what it feels like. You can't play scared, that you're going to get hurt. It doesn't matter. You just have to go all in. We're just trying to win. Survive and advance. We've just been fortunate to stay out there.

"The training room almost looks like the offensive huddle. You go in there, especially after game days, we're in a lot of ice. It's almost like the water cooler at work. But then you look at [quarterback] Chris [Whitney]. He can barely move sometimes. So what's everyone else supposed to do?"

Coach Andy Talley calls Ijalana the best offensive lineman he has had in a quarter century at 'Nova. And then he takes it up a notch.

"I'll guarantee you [Villanova] didn't have one before me that was as good . . . " Talley said. "When you look at them, they've been really banged up. But they've continued to play and develop. Because of the synergy of those guys, and their toughness, I think that's really meant a great deal to us.

"I don't even know what we would do if one of them went down. I don't want to think about it."

It won't be long before Ijalana is making a healthy living on Sundays. Until then, he's going to enjoy the journey for as far as it takes him.

"If you look at it on paper, compared to last year, it's almost amazing," he said. "Basically our season came down to the last game of the season, having to win a rivalry game away [at No. 1 Delaware]. Everything we've had to go through the last couple of weeks is wearisome. But we're tough-minded. It says a lot about what it means to be a team, and just getting after it.

"It's an honor when people give you accolades. When I first got here, they threw Brant and I on one side of the line. I was like, 'Are you kidding me?' But they just kept us in, no matter what. Those 11 games were invaluable experience. It let me know what I had to do, get stronger and hungrier. I wanted to win so badly. It pays off.

"Brant and I don't even have to make calls. We just kind of look at each other, say each other's name. We put in so much work. After the season's over, life becomes real. For now, I'm just playing for my brothers. It's down to four teams and we're one of them. It's a nice distraction to have.

"Honestly," he continued. "As a young kid, I was just happy to go to school for free."

Everyone has to start somewhere.

Extra points

Villanova is 5-1 this season against conference champions, including 3-0 in the last month. The loss was Oct. 2 at William & Mary. Eastern Washington, whose field has red turf, won the Big Sky. The Wildcats beat Big Sky champ Montana in last year's final. *