Injuries are a part of football. In 2009, Villanova won a national title using the same starting 22 in the championship game as it didn in the opener. The following year, the Wildcats might have been better but running back Matt Szczur and quarterback Chris Whitney got hurt. They still made a memorable run to the semifinals. Yet we were left with what could have been.
In the 2014 quarterfinals, the 11-2 Wildcats hosted Sam Houston State. Walter Payton Award-winning quarterback John Robertson couldn’t go because of a concussion. Backup Chris Polony played well but they lost by three. Again, we’ll never know.
The next season, Robertson went down for good in game 3. The Wildcats, ranked fourth in the first poll, finished 6-5 using redshirt freshman Zach Bednarczyk at QB.
The Wildcats started at No. 10 this year. Despite the departure of second-round NFL draft pick Tanoh Kpassagnon, they had almost everyone else back from a 9-4 club. Last week, they lost at Albany (3-1), 19-10, in overtime in their Colonial Athletic Association opener. In the first half, they lost senior safety Rob Rolle, one of the top defensive players in the CAA, to a knee injury. Ditto Ryan Bell, perhaps the best tight end in the CAA. Matt Gudzak, their leading rusher, was hurt on the last play.
Rolle is done. He is eligible for a medical redshirt. The status of Bell and Gudzak remains uncertain as they await the results of their MRIs.
Next is a trip to Towson (also 2-2, 0-1) for another Saturday night game. It’s also their fourth road game. They’re still ranked 14th. They’ve scored 97 points in their wins and 23 in the losses, a pattern that goes back to last year. Eight wins will get them into the playoffs, and maybe even give them a first-round bye. Seven would leave them on the bubble.
And they have to go to No. 1, defending national champ James Madison on Oct. 14. That’s a tough enough assignment even when the Dukes are merely good.
The only time they’ve made the tournament with four losses was 2010. They’ve made it in every even-numbered year since 2008. But haven’t made it in an odd-numbered year since 2009.
The Wildcats had previously lost four wide receivers since the start of training camp. This depletion stuff can get in anyone’s way. Especially if you let it.
“We always talk about being prepared to play,” said first-year coach Mark Ferrante, their longtime assistant. “In our league, depth’s always going to be an issue. So it’s that next-man-up philosophy. You never know when your number’s going to get called.
“It’s never good when you lose people like that. I think our guys responded well. You just have to move on.”
The guys who replaced Rolle and Bell are redshirt freshmen. The second-team tight end is also out. But Towson probably isn’t feeling sorry for them.
“We don’t feel sorry for ourselves,” said senior cornerback Malik Reaves. “As bad as it is, we know what we’ve got to do. We can’t let an injury dictate how the season’s going to be. Even if we were 4-0, no matter what, we’re going to do things the same way.
“When you see people go down like that, we’re all going to hurt. It’s upsetting. At the same time, other people stepped up. Everyone knows they have to up their game a little bit more. It’s just motivation, to make you work even harder.
“We all came here to play, to be part of something. You don’t always know when that opportunity’s going to come. But when it does you have to be ready. We take a lot of pride in that.”
Unless the Wildcats can win at JMU, their margin for error is mostly gone. They don’t need any reminders.
“Once you get in the CAA, you know what it’s going to be like,” Reaves said. “Coming off that loss, we feel like there’s even more to prove. We have to stay positive. Rob is telling us that everything’s going to be fine, that we’ve got to be strong. He’s showing us that he’s being strong in his situation. That makes you want to do whatever you can to bounce back.
“Our expectations haven’t changed. We want to win every game. There’s been a lot of energy [in practice]. Nobody’s out there moping around. That’s not going to do us any good. We know where we’re at. We have to go out and show people who we are.”