Towson-'Nova matchup an early referendum for both teams
There's not a whole lot of distance between the Villanova and Towson campuses, and the same can be said about their football programs.
Both expected CAA Football contenders had their 2015 seasons play out in strikingly similar fashion. Each struggled in the first half while besieged by a slew of key injuries, re-emerged as dangerous opponents down the stretch and ultimately fell a little short of an FCS playoff berth.
Parallels also exist through the first two weeks of this campaign, with both opening with one-sided road losses to quality FBS schools and rallying for hard-earned home wins last Saturday. Towson overcame an 18-point first-half deficit to beat Saint Francis 35-28, while the 21st-ranked Wildcats escaped with a 26-21 victory over Lehigh on Javon White's short touchdown run with 4:20 remaining.
Those uneven performances have both coaches still unsure of what exactly they have entering Saturday's meeting at Villanova Stadium (3:30 p.m. ET), the first major matchup on the conference calendar.
"Right now, I think our team has a long way to go," said Andy Talley after Villanova went 2 for 10 on third downs and committed eight penalties against Lehigh. "We are undisciplined at times."
Rob Ambrose had a simple explanation for the Tigers' early problems against a Saint Francis squad that played now-No. 7 Montana tough in its opener, stating his team sleepwalked through the first half before putting up 25 unanswered points behind backup quarterback Ellis Knudson.
"We played very hard in the second half," he said. "We played well, we played together, we played the way we're supposed to be. If we can play four quarters like that we'll be a good football team."
Stepping in for an injured Morgan Mahalak, Knudson ran for a 20-yard touchdown and threw two long TD passes to Christian Summers, including a 43-yard strike that snapped a 28-28 tie with 2:21 left. The redshirt sophomore amassed 191 of his 301 passing yards after halftime.
Knudson seems likely to get a chance to further prove himself with Mahalak's ailing shoulder putting the Oregon transfer's availability for Saturday's game in serious doubt.
His first career start figures to be a highly challenging and pressure-packed assignment, as Villanova has won 10 of 12 conference home games since a 49-25 loss to the Tigers in 2012 and traditionally fields one of the league's stingiest defenses. And considering both schools have not made the playoffs in the same season during the CAA era, Saturday's loser could very well be staring at an uphill climb to reach the postseason.
Knudson can draw from last week's stellar relief stint and his obvious rapport with Summers, who grew up less than 10 miles from the Villanova campus. The senior receiver is coming off a breakout 232-yard effort on just six catches.
"I was with Ellis all summer before Morgan even got here, so we just have that connection," Summers said. "So there's no difference, I don't feel, at all."
The Wildcats allowed Lehigh's Troy Pelletier to total 121 yards on 13 receptions and have played the first two weeks without All-CAA cornerback Jason Ceneus for undisclosed reasons. The unit still held Pittsburgh's formidable ground game to 86 yards and sealed Talley's 250th career win with a fourth-down stop in the final minute last week.
"I always feel good when the game is on the line and it's in the hands of our defense because that's where our strength is right now," Talley said.
Villanova's rushing attack was a clear asset as well against the Mountain Hawks, with White recording a career-high 155 yards on 23 carries and the Wildcats accumulating 396 as a team, their highest single-game output since the 2009 national championship season.
Throwing the ball has been a greater issue with Zach Bednarczyk averaging under four yards per attempt and managing only 56 yards on 6-of-13 passing against Lehigh.
Bednarczyk had two interceptions returned for touchdowns in last year's encounter with Towson, accounting for the difference in a 28-21 Tigers' victory. Villanova had won six of the previous eight meetings, including three of four at home.