Villanova, Lehigh battle again for Pennsylvania's FCS bragging rights

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(STATS) - Villanova has opened recent seasons by giving FBS programs fits. This year, the pressure on the perennial FCS power is heightened even as the competition level goes down.

The Wildcats kick things off against a regional rival that gave them all they could handle last year and now joins them in the rankings. They also have to open on the road, though the trip is just one hour north to Bethlehem as they face Lehigh on Saturday in a battle for FCS supremacy in Pennsylvania.

This is the first time since 2004 that Villanova didn't begin the schedule with an FBS foe or have to play one at any point during the season. Many of them might have become wary of facing the Wildcats, who have lost to Pitt, UConn, Syracuse and Boston College by an average of 9.3 points in the past four years.

"I can't remember the last time we didn't open up with an FBS opponent," Villanova coach Mark Ferrante said. "When you have those games, sometimes the expectations aren't as high out of the box because you're playing a level up.

"But we're playing a very formidable opponent in Lehigh. ... It'll be interesting. They're a top-20 ranked team so we have more than our hands full."

While the Mountain Hawks are 17th in the STATS FCS Top 25, Villanova is No. 10 to begin its first season under Ferrante, the longtime Wildcats assistant who takes over following the retirement of Andy Talley.

"I'd be crazy if I didn't tell you I'm a little nervous," Ferrante admitted.

Further fraying his nerves is the fact that the Wildcats must meet a team looking for revenge and one that should possess one of college football's best offenses. The Mountain Hawks aren't the heavy underdogs they were last September when they went to Villanova and gave a ranked Wildcats team a big scare, even taking the lead midway through the fourth quarter before losing 26-21.

"We've got a chip on our shoulder after a really tight loss against them a year ago," Lehigh coach Andy Coen said.

Many of the Mountain Hawks' top playmakers are back, led by 1,000-yard receivers Troy Pelletier and Gatlin Casey as well as two-time 1,000-yard rusher Dom Bragalone. That trio helped Lehigh rank among the top 10 offenses in the FCS with 38.8 points and 483.8 yards per game.

Brad Mayes takes over under center for 2016 Patriot League offensive player of the year Nick Shafnisky, but the junior has plenty of experience and played well when given the opportunity. He's appeared in 13 games over the past two seasons and started three games for an injured Shafnisky last year, throwing for 1,084 yards and 10 touchdowns with two interceptions. One of those games was a first-round playoff loss at New Hampshire, his only defeat in five career starts.

"Brad Mayes stepped in and did a lot of great things when Nick was out," Coen said. "Brad's had a great camp. He can really spin the football."

Villanova's strength is on the other side of the ball, having led the FCS last season in total defense. The Wildcats surrendered just 15 points and 260 yards per game.

"The key will to be to try to slow down that explosive offense they have," Ferrante said. "It should be a fairly close-contested game with our strengths matching up against each other, meaning their experienced wide receivers against our experienced secondary."

These are the only ranked FCS schools from the state of Pennsylvania. The only others to receive votes in the STATS poll were Penn and Duquesne with just 14 apiece. Villanova and Lehigh combined for nearly 4,000.

The Wildcats lead the all-time series 8-5 and have won the last five meetings. That streak dates back to 2006, when Lehigh gave Coen his first head coaching victory by winning at Villanova.

"We know what they bring to the table, they know what we're gonna do," Lehigh defensive back Sam McCloskey said. "It's gonna be a war. It's gonna be a really fun game."