Down two scores with two and a half minutes left and their season on the line, Villanova turned to their miracle man for an answer, sixth year running back Justin Covington.
Covington had been in so many big moments as a Wildcat, converting on fourth and one to clinch an upset win over James Madison earlier this season, scoring two touchdowns to upset fifth ranked Towson in 2019 and leading the Wildcats to both wins in the 2021 Spring season. The heart and soul of the Wildcats, the three year captain was given the ball on a screen pass from graduate quarterback Daniel Smith, and despite finding little success all game against a talented South Dakota State line, the Villanova faithful strained their necks with anticipation of what Covington could do. What Covington would do. A storybook ending seemed a certainty, Covington would deliver just as he always did, and the Wildcats would find a way to pull off an unlikely victory just as they had all year en route to the fifth seed and a 10-2 record.
But it wasn’t to be.
While Covington was trying to make something happen on the screen pass, South Dakota State’s sophomore cornerback Dalys Beanum knocked the ball out, and his teammate Caleb Sanders recovered the fumble to seal the game for the Jackrabbits. Victory was already almost assured for the Jackrabbits, but with that final turnover, their trip to the semifinals was confirmed, as the Jackrabbits defeated Villanova, 35-21.
Covington was disconsolate on the sideline. His helmet still on, his head in his hands, the entire Villanova sideline came over to comfort Covington, yet their words did little to soothe the wounded running back. Even after the game, Covington was still devastated.
“He’s broken up,” Villanova head coach Mark Ferrante said. “I don't think he's taken his helmet off yet. He's just sitting in his locker with a lot of guys going up to him, and uh…” He trailed off, knowing that there was nothing they could do to help his running back feel better.
At the end of the day, the play was most likely meaningless. Ahead by two scores with just over two minutes remaining, ESPN gave South Dakota State a 99% chance to win the game, yet that play was the nail in the coffin for the Wildcats, an end to a special season.
“Unless you win the whole thing, there's only going to be one team happy out of the 24 that make it,” Ferrante said. “It stings today, it’s gonna hurt a little bit tomorrow as well."
Fellow graduate student, linebacker Forrest Rhyne, said much of the same about it being the end of the road and the end of his Villanova playing career.
“No [I wasn’t able to hold my emotions together in the locker room],” Rhyne said. “Just seeing guys that I've been with every day for five years break down, that's just going to lead me to break down. Up here, I can talk the talk, but downstairs it was very emotional.”
Making the loss even more painful for the Wildcats was that this game was theirs for the taking. In the first half, both teams traded long touchdown drives and the game looked to have the makings of a shootout. Villanova’s run defense was being shredded, not by the FCS’s top rusher Pierre Strong Jr, who left the game on the first drive, but by his understudy, sophomore Isaiah Davis. Despite the defensive struggles, Villanova’s offense was finding success in return, as Smith found junior wide receiver Rayjoun Pringle several times to set up a score for Pringle and a rushing score for Smith.
With 1:39 remaining in the half, the Villanova defense forced a punt, and Smith connected with junior receiver Jaaron Hayek for a 55 yard touchdown pass to take a 21-14 lead into halftime. The Wildcats won the toss at the beginning of the game and elected to defer, giving the offense a golden chance to go up two scores without needing an additional defensive stop.
However, during halftime, South Dakota State head coach John Stiegelmeier made an adjustment.
“We played less man to man defense,” Stiegelmeier said of the shift from the first half to the second. “Nothing against Villanova, but we did not think after the first half that we had to be as concerned about the run as we [were] coming in. And so we were more concerned about the pass [so we played] more zone, so we got more people seeing the ball.”
The change worked, and Villanova was forced to punt on their first two drives to start the half. Meanwhile, the South Dakota State offense continued to pummel the Villanova defense, rushing for 48 yards in the third quarter and 88 in the fourth. In the third quarter, the Jackrabbits used the run to set up three long passes from graduate quarterback Chris Oladokun to junior wide receiver Jaxon Janke, totaling 82 yards in the quarter alone.
“I think we had a bit of a chip on our shoulder because they were so good defending the run,” Steigelmeier said. “And I mean that seriously, we're pretty good running the ball … I think that was the matchup, our big guys against their front linebackers and d-linemen.”
Against a Villanova defense that came in giving up less than 100 yards per game on the ground, the Jackrabbits asserted their will, rushing 45 times for 268 yards. Davis alone ran for 174 yards, scoring three times.
Oladokun sung the praises of his offensive line after the game.
“I don't even remember really getting hit throughout the game to be honest,” Oladokun said. “The way they just controlled the line of scrimmage… It was just an all-around great effort by those guys up front.”
After trailing 21-14 at halftime, South Dakota State scored 21 unanswered points to take the lead. The Wildcats found no success on offense in the second half, and Pringle, who terrorized the Jackrabbit defense in the first half, was held to just one reception in the half.
“You need to play a more consistent game for the full four quarters, and we were only able to do it for the first half,” Ferrante said. “We didn't play well enough in the second half to get the W today.”
The Wildcats can be proud of their season, ending with a 10-3 record, a Colonial Athletic Association title and a trip to the FCS quarterfinals, but with so much experience and so many players finishing their eligibility Saturday, there’s a hint of what could have been for the ‘Cats. The core of the team played their final game against South Dakota State, as Covington, Rhyne, Smith, defensive lineman Malik Fisher and kicker Cole Bunce are all graduate students.
“I think we can win a national championship,” Rhyne said after their elimination. “I didn't feel like we were outmatched out there today. They're a very, very good team and they lost the national championship in the spring, but I felt like the CAA is the best conference in the country, every week we played similar opponents to that level, in my opinion. I just felt like we didn't get it done [defensively]... we did not by any means play a perfect game.”
“I would definitely be proud of this season,” Rhyne said. “Now that the season’s over, I will allow myself to be proud of this season.”
Rhyne led the Wildcats with 21 tackles in the game, his second straight game with 21 tackles. He ends the season as the FCS’s leading tackler with 154 tackles, but said that it meant nothing to him after the game.
“We’re not number one in terms of the team,” Rhyne said, “so it doesn’t mean anything.”
Steigelmeier tipped his cap to Ferrante and the Villanova coaching staff.
“I told everybody, it’s one of the best if not the best coached football teams I’ve ever watched,” Stiegelmeier said. “I see guys doing the same thing over and over and over, doing their job over and over and over… I just think it's a very well coached football program.”
“And then let's not forget, there's a bunch of guys in Villanova’s team that were planning to play on, and their career ended today as seniors,” Steigelmeier said. “And that's always a tough deal in FCS football. [They’re] a really good football team. I’m excited to move on, but my heart goes out to those guys."