Pitt a big first test for Villanova, but game won't define season

kern22
Villanova coach Andy Talley, who is retiring after the upcoming season, addresses his players at the end of practice.

ON SATURDAY afternoon at Pittsburgh's Heinz Field, Andy Talley's 32nd and final season as Villanova's football coach will begin. For the 12th straight year, the Wildcats are opening against an FBS program on the road. This time, the opponent is Pitt, which has 16 starters back from an 8-5 team - plus James Conner, who rushed for 1,765 yards and 26 touchdowns in 2014 before sitting out last season with Hodgkin's lymphoma. The Wildcats - with five starters back on each side of the ball from a 6-5 club - aren't supposed to win. In these spots, they rarely are. That hasn't stopped them from lining up.

"It's a necessary evil," said Talley, whose team was picked to finish fourth in the Colonial Athletic Association. "Just about everyone in our league is doing it now (in large part because it helps pay some bills). I've not been a big fan of it. You'll probably start the season out with a loss, although it doesn't count as much now, since they're taking more teams in the (FCS) playoffs, so you've got a better shot if you have a (Division) I-A loss than you did in the past.

"They're always going to be bigger, stronger, faster. They'll play more kids. And this team is really good. We know we're big underdogs. You want to come out of it with no injuries. That's always a concern. Of course, it can set your season up if you can ever win it. If you play well and come out of it healthy, then you're ahead of the game. If you get your butt kicked and get someone hurt, it's a real downer. I've seen both."

In 2005, the Wildcats lost at Rutgers, 38-6. Quarterback Marvin Burroughs suffered a season-ending arm injury in the third quarter. Villanova finished 4-7.

Four years later, the 'Cats beat Temple, 27-24, and lost only once en route to a national championship. This is the 20th time Talley's faced an FBS school. He's won three, including against Rutgers in 2002 (37-19) and Temple the following year (23-20, in overtime). There were some close calls, including in each of the previous three years. The Wildcats led Boston College by seven at halftime before losing by 10 in 2013. They lost to Syracuse in double OT by one in 2014, after missing a short field goal at the end of regulation. And last September, they lost by five at Connecticut, after leading by three at the half.

The next two seasons, they'll again play Temple.

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They played the Panthers at Pitt Stadium in 1998, when sophomore Brian Westbrook accounted for 428 yards of offense in a 48-41 loss.

"Nobody in our league is close to these guys," Talley said. "So this tells you maybe how good you can be. Our kids like that. But you try not to make this game bigger than any other."

Three years ago, coming off a playoff appearance, Villanova was upset at Fordham after losing to Boston College, and ended up 6-5.

After Pitt, the Wildcats host Lehigh, before Towson visits on Sept. 17 for a CAA opener.

Villanova has been to the playoffs five times in the last eight seasons, most recently two years ago, when it got to the second round. It likely would have made it last year had senior quarterback John Robertson, the 2014 Walter Payton Award winner, not gone down for good with a knee injury in Game 3. His replacement, Zach Bednarczyk, was the co-CAA Rookie of the Year. Still, the margin for error can be that fragile. Especially this week.

"I think it's frustrating, knowing that we came up just short a couple of times," senior linebacker Austin Calitro said. "We know what should have happened. But no matter what, it's something to build from. Ultimately, we're going to be measured by how we do against teams at our level. If we do well against Pitt, we should be handle most of the teams on the schedule.

"I think all our starters to could play for I-A teams. It's when you get into the second and third rotation that you see a little difference. The younger guys, we want them to go into it feeling like they have nothing to lose. Just play and have fun. They're going to have two or three more years of this. But as you get older, you realize there's really not that big a gap, in terms of talent. So we'll go in with a chip on our shoulder. You hope that helps us play a little better.

"We just want to prove that we belong as well."


kernm@phillynews.com

@mikekerndn