STATE COLLEGE, PA —
The differences between the Penn State football program and Villanova’s are many, but the difference Saturday was best encapsulated by one player’s story: Villanova’s backup quarterback turned emergency punter, Connor Watkins.
Watkins usually spends his Saturdays on the sideline, helping the team however he can, yet he rarely sees the field until victory is no longer in doubt. Saturday was a marked difference from the norm for Watkins, as he was one of the busiest players on the Villanova sideline, forced into emergency action after the team’s punter, senior Nathan Fondacaro, was ruled out of the game with a non-COVID related illness. Backup kicker sophomore Will Bartel has done little punting, so instead of throwing Bartel into the fire, Villanova head coach Mark Ferrante chose to turn to his backup quarterback to handle the job in front of 105,000 people, against one of the best teams in the country.
Graduate quarterback Daniel Smith was proud of his understudy after the game, and noted the difference between the two programs.
“We're not a big school like Penn State, where we have guys that we can just roll through all the time at every position,” Smith said. “I thought he stepped up and did a fantastic job short notice like that.”
Although Penn State’s kicker Jordan Stout handles both kicking and punting for the Nittany Lions, it’s not because of a lack of options at the position. His team has an abundance of wealth at the position, with five kickers and three punters on the roster, not including Stout.
Similarly, Penn State’s defense is one of the best in the country, and their vaunted defensive unit kept Watkins busy on Saturday. Watkins had eight punts for a net total of 277 yards, averaging 34.6 yards per kick, including a long of 44. However, he did have two punts that showed his inexperience, a 37 yard dribbler in the second quarter and a fifteen yarder out of bounds in the third.
“We knew we'd struggle in the punting game a little bit,” Ferrante said. “We didn't get the 40 plus yarders to maybe change some field position, we were having to get it off and get it out of there. Field position was a big key all day, they were on our side of the 50 a lot in the second half. Our defense held them to a couple of field goals, even on a short field and all that, so I think there's going to be a lot of positives on this… We are walking out of here with our head held high.”
Ferrante mentioned the team’s resiliency several times after the game, and Watkins was the perfect example. Although he may not be the greatest punter out there, he showed tremendous character to step up when his team was in need, doing the job no one else could on the biggest stage of the season.
“I'm real proud of our guys,” Ferrante said. “We do have that never die attitude. We do have that resilience. We use that word a lot in our locker rooms, kind of our motto of tap the rock, just keep tapping the rock, tapping the rock. Just keep showing up, take one play at a time and you know, hopefully good things will happen.”
Smith said much of the same of Watkins after the game.
“Looking [at the stat sheet], I thought he did a pretty good job,” he said. “He wasn't very far off with someone who probably punts on a normal basis, in terms of average.”
Although Watkins did well, he hasn’t won the starting punting job just yet. The team expects Fondacaro back after the bye week, ready for their next game against James Madison. However, Watkins’s resilience and next man up attitude won’t be forgotten. Watkins represented Villanova well, and like the rest of the team Saturday, showed character that we all can be proud of.