After the NCAA granted an extra year of eligibility to all athletes who played last season, rosters across the nation got older. And for Villanova football, that was no different. The Wildcats brought back key players on both sides of the ball as graduates for one last ride, and in their 21-16 victory over Holy Cross in the second round of the FCS playoffs, it was those elder statesmen who made the difference.
“I’ve been saying it all year; this team is mature because of some of the ages and some of the amount of games these guys have played in," Villanova head coach Mark Ferrante said. “The maturity and the resiliency of this team has showed pretty much week in and week out this whole season, and today’s no exception.”
All three Wildcats’ captains — running back Justin Covington, linebacker Forrest Rhyne and defensive lineman Malik Fisher, all in their fifth or sixth seasons at Villanova — made key plays throughout the game that proved to be too much for the Crusaders.
Following a missed 50-yard field goal attempt by graduate kicker Cole Bunce on Villanova’s first drive, Holy Cross drove deep into Wildcat territory and was threatening to score. The ‘Cats forced the Crusaders into a 4th-and-1 inside the red zone, where they elected to go for it. Rhyne and senior linebacker Amin Black tackled Holy Cross quarterback Matthew Sluka in the backfield, resulting in a turnover on downs.
That wasn’t the only big play for Rhyne, the CAA Defensive Player of the Year. On the ensuing Crusaders' drive, Sluka was pressured by Fisher, and Rhyne swept in to finish the play with a sack. Later in the first half, Rhyne again got to Sluka for his second sack of the contest. He finished with two sacks, three tackles for loss and a career-high 21 tackles. Every time he was on the field, it seemed like he was affecting the play.
“I just personally go out there and play into the defensive scheme," Rhyne said. "I don't try to do anything outside of my wheelhouse. I’m more worried about the two missed tackles than the 21. I’m grateful to have a good game and to be recognized to have a good game, but, you know, it’s back to work.”
After a pass from Sluka was tipped by Black and intercepted by redshirt freshman defensive back Ethan Potter, the Wildcats’ offense set up inside Crusader territory. Villanova drove down to Holy Cross’ two-yard line, where they faced a 4th-and-goal. Ferrante chose to go for it, which is no surprise given his aggressiveness, and called Covington’s number. Like he’s done all season, Covington delivered, barrelling in for the score.
As the first half winded down, Covington once again found himself in the end zone, this time coming on a 14-yard run, which gave the Wildcats a two-touchdown lead. He finished the game with 62 yards on the ground for two scores, along with one catch for 20 yards.
The Wildcats entered the break with a 14-0 lead, but to start the second half, the Crusaders scored 10 unanswered points before Villanova’s offense even touched the field. However, when graduate quarterback Daniel Smith and Co. finally got the ball, they went right down the field and extended their lead back to double figures with a touchdown run by senior running back Jalen Jackson.
After a touchdown by Holy Cross cut Villanova’s lead to five, the Crusaders got the ball back with under four minutes to go and a chance to take the lead. Holy Cross started the drive with several positive plays, but once inside Villanova territory, the Crusaders’ offense stalled. On 4th-and-10, Sluka scrambled around while being pressured by Fisher and eventually decided to take off. Fisher and redshirt freshman defensive lineman Jake Green brought him down, giving the Wildcats possession and a chance to run out the clock.
With the game still in the balance, Ferrante leaned on Covington, who broke off two solid runs, the second for a first down which iced the game for the Wildcats.
The victory was a hard-fought battle by both teams from start to finish. And when it comes to games late in the year, Ferrante described it best.
“Survive and advance this time of year,” Ferrante said. “Everybody you face is going to be really good, and they were really good.”
The Wildcats will face the winner of Sacramento State and South Dakota State in the FCS quarterfinals next week.