BROOKVILLE, NY – Two early turnovers and a lack of pass protection got the sixth-ranked Villanova football team off to a slow start Saturday afternoon.
But once the Wildcats (2-0) got going, they posted another easy win, 38-21, over Long Island University at Bethpage Federal Credit Union Stadium.
Five Villanova players scored touchdowns: quarterback Connor Watkins; running backs DeeWil Barlee and TD Ayo-Durojaiye; and wide receivers Dez Boykin and Rayjoun Pringle.
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Watkins didn’t have it as easy as he did in his starting debut last week against Lehigh, at least not to start Saturday’s game. LIU chased him down early and forced a pair of interceptions on two of Villanova’s first four drives (he finished with four).
Twice, though, pocket time made all the difference.
First, with Villanova leading 3-0 midway through the second quarter, Watkins waited patiently for Jaaron Hayek to give his defender space. The 62-yard connection set up a score when, two plays later, Watkins faked a handball to Barlee and ran for an 11-yard touchdown.
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Two plays after Villanova’s next drive, Watkins again had all the time he needed on second-and-4 from his own 40-yard line. Deep on the right side of the field, Boykin was in easy coverage and Watkins got to his feet and threw. the ball. Boykin, with an LIU cornerback in a solid position, got back on the ball, jumped higher than the defender, caught the pass and ran for a 60-yard touchdown and a 17-0 Villanova lead.
“It was just getting used to the opponent and what he can and can’t do against you,” Villanova coach Mark Ferrante said of better pass protection. “They go from three down to four down. You try to practice what they are going to show you, but you can never play it at the tempo you are going to see. It seemed like we established ourselves at the front for sure.”
Villanova is quickly becoming a big offensive play behind Watkins. Eight of his first 17 completions of the season went for more than 30 yards.
“He’s got a big arm and he can spread plays if he breaks the pocket,” Ferrante said of Watkins. “That’s a long time for those guys in the back to have to cover.
“Big plays are good, I just want to keep fighting for more consistency and finish some drives. And we have to eliminate turnovers.”
While Watkins connected with his receivers for some big plays in the first half, it was defense on the first play from scrimmage in the third quarter that set up Villanova to take control of the game.
LIU quarterback Derek Green connected with Michael Love on a screen pass. Villanova linebacker Shane Hartzell fumbled the ball and Brendan Bell recovered it at the LIU 25-yard line.
That turnover set up a touchdown for Barlee and a 24-7 lead for Villanova.
Outstanding receptions from Boykin and Hayek were critical, to be sure, but Villanova’s veteran running backs made a big impact. Barlee rushed 18 times for a career-high 177 yards, and TD Ayo-Durojaiye rushed for a career-high 109 yards in 16 carries
Barlee’s 71-yard run in the fourth quarter set up an Ayo-Durojaiye 10-yard touchdown run that gave Villanova a 38-14 lead and officially put the game out of reach.
“They are strong,” Ferrante said. “We played running back by committee for the most part, and last year we had four guys, so no one probably got as many touches as they wanted.
“I’m sure they’ll take as many carries as we can give them.”
The Wildcats rushed for 365 yards on the day, their most since putting up 396 yards in a 2016 win over Lehigh.
The Wildcats travel to West Point to play Army in their only scheduled FBS game of the season.
Villanova has played the Army campus 21 times, but next weekend will mark the first trip since 1977.
The Villanova-Army game, Villanova’s last non-conference game before Colonial Athletic Association play begins, is scheduled for noon Sept. 17 and will be broadcast on CBS Sports Network.
“Any time you play in those service academies, with the choice and precision that they run it with, it’s going to be an interesting week of practice because, again, you can never run it with the speed and precision that they run it with,” Ferrante said.