The emergency starting quarterback was nowhere in sight in the interview room following Villanova’s convincing 31-0 romp over Maine Saturday. Neither were any of the running backs or receivers.
That wasn’t so much a reflection on them as it was a salute to the Wildcats’ defense, which had come up with four interceptions and two fumbles, (one of them Jaquan Amos’ 99-yard scoop-and score right when it appeared the Black Bears were on the verge of tying the game).
It’s typical of Nova’s defense, which since winning a 38-35 opening game shootout over Lehigh has allowed just 44 points over the last five games. More impressive, the defense has given up only three touchdowns.
“We’re just starting to understand the overall defensive scheme as a team,” said first year coach Mark Ferrante, whose No. 12-ranked club improved to 4-2, 2-1 in the CAA, heading into next week’s showdown at reigning FCS national champion James Madison. “The difference is we were just a step off of making some big plays in that game against Lehigh and now we’re making those plays, getting to the ball and creating these turnovers. Obviously when you graduate a defensive end who is a second round pick (the Chiefs’ Tanoh Kpassagnon) it’s hard to replace him. But we’re still stopping the run, and the turnovers were huge today.”
None huger than when Keeling Hunter knocked the ball loose from Maine’s Drew Belcher, on first and goal at the 3 in what was then a 7-0 game. It went right to Amos, who took off down the sidelines for what was only the third 99-yard fumble return in FCS history.
“I saw the ball on the ground, grabbed it and was off to the end zone,” said the freshman from nearby Northeast High. “The first 40 yards I was gone. Then I started feeling gassed. But I had Malik (Reaves) right next to me, so he secured the guy behind me and then I knew I had a touchdown.”
That essentially settled this Maine vs. Main Line battle, with the Wildcats’ making it 21-0 just 1:47 later on Taurus Phillips’ 11-yard run, two plays following a Reaves’ interception. The defense kept coming up with turnovers after that, including picks by Hunter, Rasaan Stewart and Trey Johnson, while neutralizing Maine’s running game.
In fact the Black Bears, who came into play averaging 210 yards on the ground, managed just 8. Josh Mack, leading the FCS at 167.3 per clip, was held to just 22 yards on 18 carries,
“I think guys have figured out their roles a little bit,” said Hunter, who didn’t start, as Villanova tries to find the right combinations, after losing all-league safety Rob Rolle for the season with torn ACL. “We’ve had guys starting that hadn’t played that many snaps together and since then I think we’ve worked out our chemistry and found our identity.”
The defense has been forced to carry the load following a knee injury to quarterback Zack Bernarczyk that is expected to sideline him at least a few more weeks. But redshirt freshman Jack Schetelich has stepped in and kept the Cats engine purring, throwing a 20-yard touchdown pass to Todd Summers early, then adding a 12-yard score of his own to make it 28-0 in the third.
“This was his first true start and he couldn’t have responded any better,” said Ferrante, as Schetelich threw just eight times for 61 yards and that touchdown while running 14 times for minus-9 yards. “We told Jack going into it that he just has to manage the game. ‘Don’t go out there and try to make the big play or try and win the game for us, just execute the offense and execute the game plan.’”
Now it’s onto Harrisonburg, VA, where Nova expects to be greeted by a raucous JMU crowd.
“I know, our guys are super resilient and super excited to go into that environment,” predicted Ferrante. “They get behind they’re team and there’s going to be close to 30,000 people there. But our guys get excited to go in there when they see a lot of people and hear a lot of noise. They’ll be ready to go.”
Indeed, the ‘Cats can’t wait.
“As a player traditionally you want to play in the big moment,” said Hunter, a sophomore from Franklin, TN. “No one on our defense shies away from that. They want to show they can play on the biggest stage.”
Because so far this season Villanova’s defense has been a show stopper.