Not very much has gone right for Villanova. The Wildcats and first-year coach Mark Ferrante have lost 18 players to season-ending injuries, including quarterback Zach Bednarczyk; tight end Ryan Bell, their top receiver; and safety Rob Rolle, who was voted the defensive player of the year in the Colonial Athletic Association’s preseason media poll.
They’ll take a three-game losing streak into Saturday’s game at Rhode Island (2-7, 1-5). They need to win out to avoid their first losing season since 2011. They close with Delaware (6-3, 4-2), which they’ve beaten five straight and 10 of the last 11, next week.
There will be no playoffs for a 4-5 team that was ranked 10th in the opening FCS poll.
Yet, through it all, there’s remained one constant: fifth-year senior punter John Hinchen, from Australia. In some games, he’s been their best weapon, which tells you about the issues on offense. After averaging 40.5 yards a kick his first three seasons, Hinchen is up to 44.5 on 46 attempts, with a long of 58. He leads the CAA and is fourth nationally. He’s been particularly effective in the last three games, against unbeaten James Madison, once-beaten Elon, and Richmond. It just hasn’t been enough to make a difference.
In addition to 14 kicks of 50 yards or longer, Hinchen has placed seven inside the 20-yard line. Only half his punts have been returned.
He does what he can. But he can only do so much. And that’s always been the hardest part for any competitor to accept.
“It’s definitely frustrating,” says Hinchen, who was born in Melbourne. “But there’s not much you can do about it. You have to move on knowing that it’s a growing experience. Everything happens for a reason.
“You always have to look at the positives in a situation. We’re getting a lot of young guys reps who probably wouldn’t have played. So there’s experience and depth looking ahead to next year, which might have been the rebuilding year. Now, because you have people coming back, it could turn out to be a great year.
“We had expectations for this team. But you have to adjust. It’s just life. Sometimes you get dealt a bad hand. You have to make the most of it.”
His father, Stuart, runs a Houston-based pharmaceutical business. Hinchen interned during the summer at United Healthcare in Center City.
“I’ve been kind of destined to go down that path,” he said. His brother Rob, a senior linebacker at Lafayette, also wants to get into that field. Hinchen is going to continue his education by getting his MBA at Villanova.
But he still has two games left. And he wants to go out the best way possible.
“No one likes to lose,” Hinchen said. “I know I’m pretty miserable until the next time we go to play. This has been almost surreal. I’ve never been part of something where so many people went down. We’re a close-knit group. The fact that we were able to hang in there when a lot of teams might have just rolled over says a lot. There’s been no letdown, even though the way it’s gone was disappointing.
“We go at it in practice. We still approach it like the next game’s the most important one. You only get 11 chances a year. We have two left. So there’s plenty to play for. We can send the seniors out on a high note and set the tone for next year.
“I’ve never lost to Rhode Island. I’ve never lost to Delaware. We can walk away at least salvaging that … . There were times when we’d look around at each other after another guy got hurt and just go, ‘Has anyone ever seen anything like this?’ It’s unbelievable.”
Whatever happens these next two games, Hinchen can leave knowing he did his part about as well as anyone could possibly ask. What that means, who knows. But it’s something. And in a year when there’s been little to get excited about, that’ll have to do.
“He’s by far been our most consistent guy,” Ferrante said. “Unfortunately, we’ve had to use him too frequently.”
At least it’s good to know that they can.
“It’s sort of nice getting some attention,” Hinchen conceded. “I’ve got the best long-snapper in the country [senior Collin Linden], and we’ve been together a long time now. He makes my life pretty easy. And he might tell you that. He’s a character.
“I guess my perspective is I’m just trying to put the defense in the best position to succeed. I kind of view us as a cohesive unit. I’m just one of 11 people out there. If I do my job, it’s easier for the other 10 to do theirs. I’m no different than anyone else — just a cog in the wheel.
“I really work on having a short memory. I don’t get too high or too low. I just go to the sideline and sort of collect myself. It comes down to focus. If you go out with a clean head every time, you have a better chance of being consistent. And our coverage has been outstanding. I don’t have to worry about a ball come flying back against me. All I have to worry about is my own job.”
Which means his teammates don’t have to worry about him getting it done.
“The way I attack it, every kick’s the same, whether my heels are on the goal line or the 30,” Hinchen said. “Anything else, and you put added pressure on it, which doesn’t help.
“On pooch kicks, I use the drop-punt Australian style, which I’ve been doing since I was like 2. That’s the easiest part of the game. It’s like a chip shot in golf. I enjoy doing that, even though my golf game’s inconsistent.”
Finding a suitable successor won’t be easy.
“Maybe I can use my fake moustache from Halloween and sneak back out there,” Hinchen joked.
Villanova would gladly settle for a reasonable facsimile.