It's opening week! Football season has (pretty much) arrived! And Syracuse begins its 2014 campaign with Villanova. While we're pretty familiar with the Wildcats on the basketball court, Orange fans aren't nearly as well-versed with 'Nova on the football field. Which is where this article should come in handy.
Below, Brian Ewart, from SB Nation's excellent Villanova site VU Hoops, joins us to chat all things Wildcats football. We also reminisce a bit about our time in the Big East and take a look at what Friday night's game may bring. You can find all of his responses below, and stay tuned this week for our responses over at VUHoops (which we'll post once they're live).
Obviously it's been tough for Syracuse to keep playing Georgetown in sports since the Big East break-up, but Villanova and St. John's seem anxious to continue competing with the Orange. Why's that?
Villanova always gets a great crowd in Philadelphia when Syracuse is in town. It has been a surefire sell-out for a long time now and at least in basketball, that would be the top reason why they rushed to get the Orange back on the schedule. It certainly doesn't help that Syracuse has been a perennial top-25 team in basketball, which is something that the Wildcats need in the non-conference schedule until they can trust the new Big East to provide a stronger strength of schedule. I don't think there are any hard-feelings between Villanova and Syracuse's athletics departments like there may be with some of the other former Big East schools.
In football it almost certainly has to do with the relationship between the athletic directors. When they're already getting on the phone to talk about arrangements in basketball and maybe in some other sports, it's easy to also chat about upcoming football schedules. This week's game was obviously scheduled before all of the conference shifting started and I'm sure Vince Nicastro heard that Syracuse was looking for a game at some Big East meeting and moved to lock this game down.
Do Villanova fans still talk about that time the Big East asked you to join for football, then you said yes, and then John Marinatto said no?
Thanks for reminding me.
Yes, sometimes we do. That's not exactly how it happened, per my understanding, but it's close enough. Villanova was in a tough spot as far as the stadium issue was concerned, but could have definitely done a better job of presenting the possibility.
QB John Robertson seemed to have himself quite a year last year. What do Wildcats fans expect from him this season?
Expectations for Robertson are sky-high. I think people will expect him to have a Walter-Payton-Award-type season. He's the key to the offense and has carried the team when the going has been tough. The key for him this season will to become a more dangerous passer. He has generated decent passing yardage the last two seasons, but with Villanova's receivers, he should be able to do more. A lot of that will depend on what sort of protection he gets from the offensive line, obviously, but he is a great fit for the Wildcat's offensive scheme.
So I'm looking down the stat sheet from last year, and on both sides of the ball, it seems like everyone important is back. Are the Wildcats missing any key players, or is this just a veteran-heavy group?
There are a few notable losses. Mostly in the trenches. The Wildcats lost three starting offensive linemen to graduation -- Dan Shirey, Bill Vogel and Josh Bucci -- both guards and the left tackle. Vogel was a transfer from Nebraska-Omaha, but the other two were four-year starters for the Wildcats, so replacing them is a bit scary.
On defense, they lost Rakim Cox and Antoine Lewis on the defensive line. Cox just signed with the Miami Dolphins, so you might imagine that he left some rather large shoes to fill. Lewis was a four-year starter at defensive end and tackle and had been one of the 'Cats most consistent performers on the line. At cornerback they will be replacing Craig James with one of a couple of freshmen and sophomores.
At the other spots though, this is definitely a very veteran-heavy team, so the expectations for them are pretty high if the new faces can do well.
If you could describe the 2014 Villanova football team in one word, what would it be?
Expectations. Not necessarily for this first game, but for the season. The Wildcats played well last year, but ultimately fell about at least a win short of where they needed to be to get into the playoffs. They have the offensive firepower to do some damage this season, and the fans who have paid attention expect them to take a big step forward this season.
What's Villanova fans' outlook for this team in 2014? You guys seem like you're going to be pretty good.
Villanova was picked to finish second in the CAA conference (which, historically has been much better than being picked first) and 12th/13th, respectively, in the two FCS polls. The expectation would seem to be for a playoff appearance and likely some home games.
The first three games on the schedule are pretty brutal. Getting out of Syracuse uninjured is more important than a victory (though, they're obviously going to try for both), because they'll have Fordham the week after and the Rams really emerged as a contender last season and should still be very good this year. Their third game will be against JMU, who have been one of the top CAA teams for a while. Winning two of those three could set them up really well the rest of the way, and getting into the playoffs with a home game or two would be a really good situation to make a run from.
What's your perception of Syracuse heading into this season and Friday's game?
I think we always head into the first game of the season (against an FBS school) expecting it to be a battle. It's tough for an FCS school not to get a bit beat up and worn down during the course of that game just due to the numbers. Syracuse potentially has some pretty big expectations of its own this season, so we're heading into this expecting an offense that will play fast and score points and a defense that won't tire out so easily.
Which Wildcat player should Orange fans keep an eye on?
I'll add "other than John Robertson" to the end of this question, since that's the easy answer. Based on the last two seasons, I have to go with the running game, so keep an eye on Kevin Monangai. He had a little bit of a down season last year after 1,200+ yards as a sophomore, but he's one of the team's hardest workers and an extremely strong runner who can rack up big yardage if given the opportunity. The 'Cats will also have a few potential breakout players in the passing game, but they tend to have a run-first mentality.
Which Syracuse player are VU fans fearing going up against?
I suppose Terrel Hunt should be that player. He is the key to an offense that could be very scary if he reaches his potential this season. He seems like the type of dynamic quarterback who will make things happen on the field.
Okay, seriously: Does Villanova have a shot to pull a major upset here?
Never say never. I'll give you the Patented Andy-Talley-Answer to this question: "We need to start out real well and play the game close. If we're still in it in the fourth quarter, then we've got a really good chance of pulling it out."
Whenever Villanova has upset an FBS opponent, the game has been close and the 'Cats have won it in the fourth quarter. It seems pretty unlikely that they would win in a blowout. If the offensive line has gelled enough by Friday night, then I don't think that moving the ball will be an issue, and that should really help things. John Robertson is fearless and will get out there and make plays, so the question is whether or not he'll get some support.
Villanova's defense should hopefully play well early on (though we have some concerns about the cornerbacks, with all-new starters), and the big question will be how well they can hold up. Last year you could see them losing some steam near the end of the Boston College game. The offense needs to play well throughout to give them a chance to catch their breath.
So there you have it. (Almost) Everything you need to know about Villanova football for this week's game.
Thanks to Brian for taking the time on these questions. If you're interested in seeing more on the Wildcats, head over to VU Hoops, and/or check out Brian on Twitter.