Villanova started the season as the 10th-ranked team in FCS, the third-highest of the five from the Colonial Athletic Association in the preseason poll.
The Wildcats had almost everybody back from a group that won nine games and made it to the second round of the playoffs, with the notable exception of end Tanoh Kpassagnon, who was part of the nation’s top-rated defense and would be selected in the second round of the NFL draft by the Kansas City Chiefs.
So expectations were obviously ambitious for a program that had made it to the tournament six of the previous nine seasons. That, of course, included a national title in 2009 and a trip to the semifinals the following December.
But things can change, sometimes in a hurry. Fate has been known to step in. That’s not meant as an excuse, merely a reasonable explanation.
Every team experiences attrition. Even so, once in a while you really have to shake your head and wonder. Wide receiver was supposed to be a position of strength. Then the Wildcats lost four receivers either in camp or the first two games.
In an overtime loss at Albany on Sept. 23, safety Rob Rolle, the CAA’s preseason defensive player of the year, went down with a non-contact knee injury while returning a kickoff. Near the end of the first half, tight end Ryan Bell – who had nine touchdowns in the previous seven games – also left after hurting a knee. And on the final play, leading rusher Matt Gudzak suffered a knee injury, too.
All three were done for good.
On the opening possession the following week at Towson, three-year starting quarterback Zach Bednarczyk — who had thrown for six touchdowns and no interceptions, and run for two scores – injured a knee.
He’s not coming back, either.
The past two weeks the Wildcats have been without three-year starting guard Louie Csaszar, who broke bones in his face during a no-pad drill in practice when a teammate accidentally pushed his facemask into his cheek.
In Saturday’s loss at No. 11 James Madison, they went to true freshman QB Kyle McCloskey, in relief of redshirt freshman Jack Schetelich. And it was a one-possession game with 7 1/2 minutes to go.
But they still have a chance, albeit less than you would have figured a month ago. The goal is always to win the CAA. That isn’t going to happen. The playoffs remain a possibility. Not that it’s going to be easy, especially given their diminished body count.
“These kids have been very resilient,” said first-year coach Mark Ferrante, who’s been part of the program for three decades. “They’re playing hard. We’ve always preached that one-game-at-a-time mentality. If I hear one word about playoffs or anything like that, I’m going to lose my mind.
“Obviously, if you’re still playing meaningful games, it’s a good place to be.”
If they can win out they’d be in the 24-team field. And even get an opening home game (but not likely a bye) since right now they’re 15th, one of six CAA teams in the top 22. Two more are receiving votes. The Wildcats, who are off this week, have to play three of them. So their destiny is in their hands. But they need to go 3-1 to at least keep themselves in the conversation.
They haven’t made the playoffs in back-to-back years since 2008-10.
Albany (3-3, 1-2) has lost two straight since it beat them. The losses were to current No. 14 Elon (5-1, 3-0), which was picked to finish next-to-last, 6-0, and No. 11 Richmond (4-2, 2-1), 41-38 in OT. Both were on the road. Richmond’s loss was to Elon, by three at home.
The Wildcats host Elon next week. After that, they get Richmond here. On Nov. 11 they’re at Rhode Island (1-5, 0-3) before closing with Delaware (4-2, 2-1) – which is playing better under new coach Danny Rocco (formerly at Richmond) – on Lancaster Avenue.
They’ve only played twice at home so far, against Lafayette (2-5) and Maine (2-3, 1-3). They won those by a combined 90-0. They won last season at Elon, 42-7. They lost a year ago at Richmond, which chose to score a meaningless touchdown in the final seconds when it could have/should have taken a knee, 23-0.
They’ve lost to Delaware once since 2005. That was in 2011, when they went 2-9.
At this point, you could make the case that Villanova probably isn’t good enough. If they were whole, things would be different. How different, we’ll never know. And it doesn’t matter. The reality is, they’re not the same team. But they’ll get their shot. And with everything that has happened to them, that’s all they can ask.