Villanova aims to slow down Jackrabbits
If pressed, Villanova weak safety Rob Rolle and cornerback Malik Reaves could identify South Dakota State’s three biggest offensive threats by name, but it’s not necessary when uniform numbers will do.
They know quarterback Taryn Christion (No. 3), tight end Dallas Goedert (No. 86) and wide receiver Jake Wieneke (No. 19) are the players to watch in Saturday’s showdown between the ninth-ranked Wildcats (9-3) and the seventh-ranked Jackrabbits (83) at Dykehouse Stadium in the second round of the FCS playoffs.
All three were up for the Walter Payton Award, the FCS version of the Heisman Trophy. Wieneke is a twotime All-American. He and Goedert were preseason All-America selections. All three are among the statistical leaders in the FCS in passing and receiving.
Yet their names are not as important as their uniform numbers.
“One of the things we try to do, especially on defense, is try to take every week as a faceless opponent,” Rolle said. “That way, we’re playing pPitt every week or James Madison. We look at every opponent as a topnotch opponent.
“In the CAA, you can’t take anybody for granted. So for us, this is just another week. Yeah, you have to be alert. You have to stay on top of things. You can’t make any mistakes because if you do, their offense will make you pay for it.”
South Dakota State’s offense is impressive. The Jackrabbits rank eighth in the FCS in passing offense (314.4 yards per game) and total offense (481.7), and 11th in scoring (37.4 points). SDSU is the only team to beat top-seeded and fivetime defending FCS champion North Dakota State this season. And the Jackrabbits scored five touchdowns in a 59-41 loss to FBS member TCU in its season opener.
Christion, Goedert and Wieneke, or 3, 86 and 19 as far as the Wildcats are concerned, make that offense go.
Christion was selected as the Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year. The 6-2, 215-pound sophomore is fourth in the FCS in passing touchdowns (29) and total offense (341.3 ypg.), sixth in both passing yards (3,369) and passing efficiency (158.5) and seventh in passing yards per game (306.3). He has completed 246 of 348 pass attempts with just eight interceptions.
“Their quarterback is probably the best quarterback that we’ve seen,” Villanova coach Andy Talley said. “He’s difficult to put pressure on because he has great feet. The problem you have is that if you put pressure on him, he can take off and run and break you down that way. He’s a threat. He’s really fast. He’s a running threat with a great arm.”
Christion has two bigtime targets that make him even more of a threat. Goedert and Wieneke are the only teammates in the FCS with 70 or more receptions. Wieneke leads the FCS in touchdown receptions (16), and is sixth in both receiving yards (1,204) and receiving yards per game (109.5). Goedert is sixth in receptions per game (7.1), eighth in receiving yards (1,146), ninth in receiving yards per game (104.2) and 10th in receiving touchdowns (10).
Eastern Washington’s Cooper Kupp and Shaq Hill are the only teammates who come close to those numbers.
“They’re a big, physical aggressive team,” Reaves said. “They like to go right at you and we don’t mind that. We’re not afraid of being physical. That’s what we pride ourselves on. We like to be physical, too.”
You don’t get to be ranked second in the FCS in scoring defense (15.4), third in total defense (265.0), eighth against the run (94.3) and ninth versus the pass (170.7) by playing soft. And the Wildcats have faced their share of high-powered offenses.
Villanova held Pitt to 28 points and 261 yards in the season opener. The bowleligible Panthers (8-4) are averaging 42.7 points (No. 10 in the FBS) and 447.5 yards per game. Villanova also limited James Madison to 20 points and 277 total yards a few weeks ago. The Dukes are second in the FCS in scoring offense (47.7 ppg.) and third in total offense (522 ypg).
Yes, the Wildcats lost both of those games, largely because the offense struggled in both of them. Villanova scored seven points and had 172 total yards against the Panthers and managed just one TD and 239 total yards versus the Dukes.
The offense, though, has come alive in the last two weeks. Villanova averaged 36 points and 485 yards in wins over Delaware in the regular-season finale and Saint Francis in the opening round of the playoffs. The Wildcats have been especially effective in the first half, putting 27 points on the board in the first half against the Blue Hens and scoring all of their points in a 31-21 victory over the Red Flash in the first half.
All eyes, though, will be on the defense, as it has been all season.
“We have to do what we do well,” Rolle said. “We have to limit their running game, make it a one-dimensional game and break their will.”