The Villanova football team beat third-ranked James Madison 28-27 on Saturday afternoon to move to 4-1 on the season, and 2-0 in CAA conference play. The Wildcats were able to break a five-game losing streak against the Dukes, and picked up their first win in Harrisonburg since the 2009 campaign that ended in an FCS championship.
“Obviously we’re thrilled to death about coming away with that victory,” head coach Mark Ferrante said postgame. “We did what we needed to do to come away with the victory. I’m super proud of our team.”
The Wildcats were led by graduate quarterback Daniel Smith, who had 16 completions for 256 yards and a touchdown, and added an additional score on the ground. Graduate running back Justin Covington had 13 carries for 86 yards, highlighted by a 56-yard rushing touchdown in the first quarter, and junior wide receiver Rayjoun Pringle had eight catches for 132 yards and a touchdown.
Defensively, three players had double digit tackles for the Wildcats. Graduate linebacker Mike Ruane made 11 tackles, including a sack, junior linebacker Qwahsin Townsel had 11 as well, and graduate linebacker Forrest Rhyne made a career-high and possibly a program record 20 tackles against the Dukes.
The game started with a strong defensive statement from the ‘Cats defense, as they forced a three-and-out with some staunch coverage.
The offense set up for its first drive from their own 38-yard line, and got rolling after Smith scrambled to pick up a first down on a 3rd and 8. After the conversion, it looked as though the ‘Cats were going to have the benefit of a pass interference call on a deep Smith throw to junior wideout Jaaron Hayek, but the penalty was offset by an unnecessary roughness call on the Wildcats.
That didn’t stop the Wildcats, as Smith was able to cap off a 62-yard drive with a roughly 20-yard bootleg keeper that he took into the endzone. After a successful PAT, the Wildcats took a 7-0 lead.
On the ensuing kickoff, the Dukes’ return man broke loose and seemed destined for the end zone, but graduate kicker Cole Bunce was able to dive at the return man’s feet and knock him down to save a sure touchdown. However, Bunce’s effort would ultimately be nullified, as the Dukes were able to drive down the already short field, assisted by a targeting penalty that led to the ejection of senior linebacker Amin Black. Penalties would prove to be costly for the ‘Cats, as they had the marker thrown on them seven times in the first half for a combined 61 yards. The Dukes leveled things with a short run, and after the PAT the game stood at 7-7.
On the next drive, the Wildcats responded with a 56-yard run for a touchdown from Covington. An unsportsmanlike conduct penalty was assessed against the ‘Cats, but it wasn’t until after the play was blown dead, so the yardage was enforced on the kickoff.
The PAT after the long Covington run was blocked, so the score only moved to 13-7 in favor of the ‘Cats.
After the Wildcats touchdown, the Dukes drove and made a 41-yard field goal attempt that cut the deficit to three. At the end of the first quarter, the ‘Cats led 13-10.
The Wildcats then responded with a 39-yard field goal of their own, increasing their lead to six with 14:51 left to play in the half.
The Dukes then went on a 17-point run to close out the half. The squad scored on a drive that included two fourth-down conversions, and then on the ensuing Villanova drive forced a strip-sack on Smith to set up a short field, and subsequently punched that opportunity in for six to tally 14 points in less than a minute-and-a-half of game time. The Dukes were driving just as the half was coming to a close, but had to settle for a field goal with three seconds left.
The score stood 27-16 in favor of the Dukes at the half. JMU accrued 137 rushing yards at the half against a Villanova defense that touted itself as one of the best run defenses in the FCS.
In the second half, things shifted. The Wildcats started with a drive that ended with another Bunce field goal, and then on the ensuing Dukes’ possession, the ‘Cats defense came up with a big third-down stop to get the ball back. After another Wildcats drive that culminated in a Bunce 42-yarder, the score was 27-22 Dukes.
The ‘Cats defense then came up with another third-down sack, this time aided by excellent coverage in the secondary, and got the ball back at their own 29-yard line. After a few plays and a JMU facemask call that gave the ‘Cats a first down, Smith was able to connect with Pringle for a 57-yard touchdown that gavc the ‘Cats a one-point lead. The Wildcats decided to go for two to try and extend the lead to three, but the attempt was unsuccessful.
The ‘Cats defense then came up big again, forcing the JMU offense to punt for the third time in the quarter. The Wildcats got the ball back and started to drive. Smith said postgame that the stops the defense continued to get in the third quarter helped sway the momentum of the game towards the ‘Cats.
“The defense getting stops, the big sacks on third down getting us the ball back.” Smith said. “Adding that on top of the scores we had, I think that’s what ultimately provided momentum.”
The third quarter ended 28-27 in favor of the ‘Cats.
Near the start of the fourth, another targeting penalty was assessed, this time to a Dukes’ linebacker. The ‘Cats continued to drive down the field, until they faced a fourth down at the JMU 29. The ‘Cats went for it, but failed to convert and turned the ball over on downs.
The Dukes then drove down the field, but the Villanova defense continued to bend and not break, this time forcing field goal attempts on two consecutive JMU drives.
The first was a 27-yarder that seemed like a given for the Dukes’ normally automatic kicker, redshirt senior Ethan Ratke. However, his kick sailed wide right and Villanova took back over.
The ‘Cats offense stalled, and the Dukes got the ball back again. After a drive that started on their own 43-yard line, the Dukes drove down to the ‘Cats 19, and attempted a 36-yard field goal. Ratke’s hit off of the left goal post and bounced away, keeping the Wildcat lead intact. Coach Ferrante said post game that he couldn’t have imagined Ratke missing not just one, but two field goals.
“I mean you have the best kicker ever in the FCS, and he pushes one right and one goes left,” Ferrante said. “You saw that movie Angels in the Outfield, maybe there’s somebody out there just blowing it wide on either direction, and our guardian angel traveled with us.”
The ‘Cats got the ball back after the field goal attempt with a one-point lead and 2:12 to play. They needed a first down to ice the game, and after three runs, they faced a fourth and 1. The Wildcats decided to hand it to Justin Covington on fourth instead of punting, and Covington, with a push from the offensive line, was able to pick up just enough for the Wildcats to win the game.
“Just didn’t want to give them the ball back,” Ferrante said of the decision. “I know that if we didn’t convert that they’re pretty much in field goal range already and it would have cost us the game, but just having trust faith and confidence in our guys up front and in [Smith] and [Covington] to execute the play properly and get the yard we needed.”
Covington said that once he knew he had the first down, the ‘Cats had won the game and pulled off the upset.
“We had some initial push, and then I had to make another second effort and stretch the ball out before I was down and I knew I got the first down,” Covington said. “After that I was just really excited.”
The Wildcats defense, after giving up 27 points in the first half, did not allow the Dukes to score in the second half of play.
The ‘Cats next game is Oct. 16 on the road against Albany. The Wildcats will return home after three weeks on the road for the homecoming game on Oct. 23, facing off with currently undefeated Rhode Island.
Smith was quick to downplay just how important the win was to the program, and noted that there are still more games to play.
“We have high aspirations for ourselves, but the way we look at it is one game at a time, you know, this was the next game so this was the most important game. Now we can celebrate it for 24 hours, move on to Albany and say, ‘Hey, that’s the next game so that’s the most important game.’”