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College Football: Villanova Looking For More Than Just a Good Showing Against Nation’s Top Team South Dakota State

By Marc Narducci, 12/05/23, 10:00AM EST


By Marc Narducci

VILLANOVA, PA - It’s easy to say that Villanova’s football team is playing with house money, especially if you’re staying in a different house.

Yet from Villanova’s standpoint, there will be no house money. There is too much at stake and too many players who have poured so much sweat into this program to gain any type of moral victory in the Wildcats’ next game, a quarterfinal Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) against the No. 1 team in the nation and top-seeded South Dakota State.

The game will be noon ET on Saturday and televised by ESPN.

This is a veteran Villanova roster that includes 19 graduate students in their fifth or sixth years of college football.

Some of the players have been at Villanova for a quarter of their lives.

Think about that for a minute. That’s a long time.

There are many college football teams that are veteran-laden, due to the COVID-marred 2020 season, which the NCAA didn’t count on anybody’s football eligibility.

So having so many fifth and sixth-year players in this climate isn’t totally unusual, but it still means that slightly more than 20 percent of the 92-man roster has spent either five or six years on the Main Line.

And now that brings us to Villanova’s next task, the toughest to date, no doubt.

Villanova knows the terrain, having won its lone FCS title in 2009, but that was more than a few years ago although current head coach Mark Ferrante was an assistant on that squad. Ferrante is in his 37th overall year at Villanova, including the last seven as head coach, and he has been a part of all 15 of the Wildcats FCS playoff appearances.

This year the Wildcats are the No. 8 seed, which is why they are traveling to South Dakota State. That is kind of like facing the Kansas City Chiefs, or even the Eagles of FCS.

It wasn’t that long ago that South Dakota State won a quarterfinal game, 35-21 at Villanova in 2021.

That game was the Jackrabbits’ fourth semifinal appearance in the last previous five years up to that point.

Villanova Head Coach Mark Ferrante Lauds his team after Quarterfinal FCS Playoff Win Against Youngstown State (video/ Marc Narducci)

Even though SDSU lost the next week, 31-17 at Montana State in the FCS semifinals, it was still a springboard season for what awaited next.

That would include last year’s 14-1 record and FCS championship. The only loss last season was by a 7-3 score to Iowa, which showed that the winning Hawkeyes had just as much trouble scoring against FCS teams as they do vs. FBS squads.

FBS teams are no longer lining up to play the Jackrabbits and for good reason.

Anyway, South Dakota State ended last season with a 45-21 victory over former FCS king North Dakota State in the championship game.

Before that game, North Dakota State had won 9 of the previous 11 FCS titles.

Last year was the first FCS championship for South Dakota State and based on this season, the Jackrabbits appear intent on adding to their trophy case.

South Dakota State is 12-0 after a workmanlike 41-0 second-round pounding of Mercer.  Like Villanova, South Dakota State had a first-round bye.

So, that brings us to Villanova. The Wildcats (10-2) have won seven in a row after their own impressive 45-28 home playoff win over Youngstown State, a school most known in these parts as the alma mater of former Eagles QB Ron Jaworski.

Villanova is a decided underdog, but none of that means the Wildcats are looking to travel 1,367.9 miles to Brookings, South Dakota in order to play a close game, only to see their season end.

There is so much emotion about extending one’s season and even more so with Villanova having so many fifth and sixth-year players. Not only that, but the younger players also don’t want to turn in their equipment just yet.  

“We really don’t have moral victories at this point,” Villanova fifth-year QB Connor Watkins told Philadelphia Sport Digest after throwing for 275 yards and one touchdown and running for 56 yards and two more scores in the win over Youngstown State. “It’s win or go home and that’s the end of a career for a lot of guys on our football team, so we just have the mentality it’s win or nothing.”


The players and Ferrante, realize what the Wildcats are up against. SDSU has won 26 games in a row.

Villanova QB Connor Watkins answers back with a TD giving the Wildcats a 14-10 lead in game vs. Youngstown State. (PSD Photo by Geanine Jamison)

Villanova in FCS Quarterfinal Game vs. Youngstown State. (video/ Geanine Jamison)

One person who has perspective about facing each team is Youngstown State coach Doug Phillips, who lost at SDSU on Nov. 11 by a 34-0 score.

Needless to say, Phillips didn’t have much fun facing either the Jackrabbits or Wildcats.

“They are very similar up front, they are going to establish the run game, they’ve got a lot of running backs, you will find out South Dakota State has a lot of running backs, they have a quarterback that can hit you deep, make the plays, and can hand the ball off when the run game is going and all of a sudden you want to bring safeties up and your put corners one on one and they have receivers like Villanova did today,” he said. “I think it’s a great matchup, South Dakota State is a great football team and Villanova is a great football team.”

If any team is to upset SDSU, it’s likely a veteran group, one that say, has 19 fifth or sixth-year seniors.

To beat SDSU, a team needs to be equally proficient running and passing the ball, with big-play potential.

Wait, doesn’t that describe Watkins?

He leads all FCS QBs in passing yards per completion (17.8).  Watkins has thrown for 2,607 yards and 20 touchdowns and has rushed for 328 yards and 10 more scores.

The main running backs include a sixth-year player Jalen Jackson and two fifth-year veterans, the appropriate named TD Ayo-Durojaiye and DeeWill Barlee, the pride of Episcopal Academy.

As a team, Villanova averages a hefty 5.6 yards per carry.

And then there are big-play receivers such as Jaylan Sanchez and Rayjuon Pringle, who both average more than 25 yards per reception and have combined for 14 receiving TDs.

The defense comes at teams in waves, with 15 players having 20 or more tackles, led by punishing linebackers Brendan Bell and Shane Hartzel, who each have 82 tackles.

Of course, SDSU has its own big-play potential and is averaging 6.4 yards per carry, led by Isaiah Davis (1,192 yards, 6.7 avg. 14 TDs).

Speaking of similar, SDSU QB Mark Gronowski is 6-foot-3 and 225-pounds, the exact listed height and weight of Watkins.

Gronowski has thrown for 2,517 yards and 24 TDs, while rushing for 260 yards and seven scores.

Twin receivers Jaxon and Jadon Janke are double trouble. Jaxon has 43 receptions for 708 yards and four TDs while Jadon has 41 receptions for 719 yards and eight scores.

DE Terveer Cade leads the defense with six sacks.

Both teams have repeatedly displayed big-play ability, but SDSU is the one with the more recent success.

With only eight teams left in the tournament, it’s not supposed to be easy at this point. Villanova certainly has its work cut out.

One gets the impression that SDSU does as well.