Philly College Football Kicks Off With A Local Rivalry

By Mike Kern for

August 28, 2108

From 1928-1943, Temple and Villanova played each other in football every season. This was during a time when the Owls were going to the inaugural Sugar Bowl for Pop Warner. And were beating Penn State some two months before the attack on Pearl Harbor. Of course it took more than seven decades for them to beat those dreaded Nittany Lions again. Details.

Then, there was nothing again between two schools separated by some 30 miles until 1970. But they would renew the rivalry for 11 straight years, until Villanova dropped its program. That was during the time when Wayne Hardin was trying to give North Broad Street a higher profile, and nearly beat Penn State three times in a five-year span.

The Wildcats came back at the I-AA (now FCS) level in 1985. In 2003 they finally got another shot at the Owls, in the first college game at Lincoln Financial Field. And they won, 27-24, in overtime. They took the next meeting as well, on a late field goal in 2009, when they wound up going 14-1 en route to a national championship. Temple won the next year, when Villanova went back to the semifinals, on a late field goal and touchdown. The Owls won via blowouts in 2011 and ’12.

Last year Temple led by 13 at halftime but needed another late field goal to avert overtime. This Saturday at noon in South Philly they will meet for perhaps the last time. At least for the foreseeable future. And that would be a shame. But Temple doesn’t really have much to gain by scheduling the game, except for getting 10,000 more fans into the stadium. Which is never a bad thing. Still, the Owls have a whole lot to lose and not much to gain. That’s just the way it is, in these matchups. And every year there are a handful of FCS teams that beat FBS opponents. You can look it up. That doesn’t mean they’re all necessarily upsets. Yet on paper, well, it sure looks like it’s not supposed to happen.

For Villanova, which is going to play an FBS team every year anyway, it’s a good deal. The Wildcats get to take a short bus ride to an “away” game, they get more fans at the Linc than they get for just about any on-campus dates against Colonial Athletic Association teams and they make some money out of it. Which has mostly been the whole point for FCS programs trying to help make the bottom line more feasible.

The Owls should be favored, just because. They went 7-6 last year under first-year coach Geoff Collins, the former Florida defensive coordinator, coming off back-to-back 10-win seasons, which is two more than the program had ever managed before that. Last year’s record wasn’t necessarily a surprise, given all the transitionary circumstances. And they did win four of their last five, after Frank Nutile took over at quarterback. That included a bowl win for just the third time, and first since 2011.

Now they have 13 starters back and were picked to finish third in the American Athletic Conference East, behind Central Florida and South Florida. For whatever that’s worth at this point. Expectations should be higher. But the sked isn’t easy. They have road games at Navy, UCF, Houston, Maryland and Boston College, which some feel could be a real sleeper under former Temple coach Steve Addazio. So the last thing the Owls need is to not win one that most folks figure they will. That’s the inherent risk.

In this matchup the Owls always have a manpower advantage. They’re bigger, faster and deeper. And attrition can definitely be a factor, particularly this early. Even more so if the temperature is summery.

A year ago, everything that could go wrong on the Main Line did. New coach Mark Ferrante, who spent nearly 30 years on Andy Talley’s staff, lost most of his key players to injuries. The Wildcats still managed to go 5-6. One loss was in overtime. Now they’ve been picked to finish sixth in their league, which means they might be flying under the radar a bit. Sometimes that can be a motivational thing. We’ll see. This much is certain: they’ve made the playoffs in every even-numbered year since 2008, if you’re into that sort of stuff.

Quarterback Zach Bednarczyk, a fifth-year senior, had thrown for seven touchdowns with no interceptions when he went down last season. He is surrounded by weapons, and a veteran line. But in the past few years, when the Wildcats have lost it’s mostly been because the offense failed to produce. That needs to change.

If they could knock off the Owls, it obviously sets them up to make a return run to the postseason. If not, well, life goes on. The CAA is where they’re either going to get it done or not. They will certainly have enough chances against teams with similar aspirations, in one of the toughest FCS neighborhoods. The Wildcats have to go to Stony Brook in late September, at which point they should probably be no worse than 3-1. They get defending national runneruup James Madison, the 2016 champion, and New Hampshire, a perennial playoff team that they haven’t played in quite awhile, in October sandwiched around their bye. So who knows? The main thing, as they just learned, is staying reasonably healthy. Because in FCS quality depth is not always a luxury.

So Saturday at the Linc, tangibly there’s really not much at stake. Other than local pride. But since they are keeping score … it’s been interesting more often than not. And the rules say there has to be a starting point. Maybe that’s enough. Especially for the survivor. Particulalry, as logic suggests, that team is the one trying to be play with the biggest boys on the food chain. If only it were that simple.

FYI: Be on the lookout for my Fraud Five, a fixture for the past quarter-century at the Daily News, to now be appearing on starting September 9.

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