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Know Your 2010 Opponents: Villanova

It was the moment every opponent of Villanova was waiting for this offseason.  Draft day was approaching.

But this professional draft isn't the one you're thinking it is.

Wildcat senior WR Matt Szczur, who was last year's CAA player of the year and voted Most Outstanding Player of the FCS Championship game, was about to find out if he was going to be drafted in the Major League Baseball draft.

With legions of Delaware, Temple, Lehigh, Richmond and James Madison fans cheering him on, the word came out: he was drafted in the fifth round by the Chicago Cubs. Undoubtedly, cheers rang out.

That is, until Villanova issued a press release mentioning that part of his Cubs contract would stipulate that he would return for his final year of football eligibility. What that means to Villanova opponents is: one more year of Number Four. (Cue the groans.) (more)

Here's an excerpt of the official release that made Blue Hen, Spider, and Mountain Hawks fans weep:

Two-sport star Matt Szczur (Erma, N.J.) has signed a contract with the Chicago Cubs and will report to one of the team's minor league affiliates within the next few days, it was announced today. Szczur's contract will allow him to return to Villanova this fall and play his senior year of football for the Wildcats.

Szczur begins his professional baseball career just a few weeks after the Cubs made him their fifth-round selection in last month's amateur draft. He will be able to play baseball this summer before returning to campus for the start of fall semester classes as well as preseason football workouts.

"I am incredibly excited to have the opportunity to play professional baseball. It has always been a dream of mine to play at this level," stated Szczur. "I could not have asked for a better situation. I am thrilled to begin my professional baseball career in the Chicago Cubs organization and also be able to return to Villanova for my senior year and help my football teammates defend our national championship."

Szczur's thrill is Lehigh's buzzkill.  Mountain Hawk fans and players are all too aware of his ability running the ball out of the Wildcat formation.  Last year, he ran for 100 yards against Lehigh with only five rushes, including a 75 yard run that was only not a touchdown thanks to the efforts of LB Matt Cohen, who did something not a lot of opponents did against him last year: run him down from behind.

"I wish I had gotten that touchdown [on a 75-yard run], I can tell you that," Szczur said after that game.  "All the credit goes to the line. They worked hard all week preparing for this package. We went fast which is something we didn't do against Temple, get on the ball fast and snap the ball. We caught them off-guard tonight and that was one of the big reasons why it worked."

Szczur - and the way head coach Andy Talley uses him - causes nightmares for opposing defensive coordinators.  Oddly for a player that gets so much focus before a game, he doesn't get a lot of touches during a game.  Against Lehigh, he had nine touches, and on average during the season he averaged ten touches per contest. 

The trouble is: you don't know when those ten touches are going to come.  Will it come through passes from senior QB Chris Whitney, himself a threat to run the ball at any time as well as toss passes?  Will it come from the Wildcat formation, where you don't know whether they will do a "quick snap" and go to either Whitney or Szczur?  Or will the multi-talented "slash" back just roll out and loft a pass on the money, something Matt did four times last year (out of four attempts)?

Szczur wasn't the leading rusher on the Wildcats last year.  He also wasn't the leading receiver, or even the leading all-purpose offensive yardage leader - Whitney has him beat on all three counts.  But his speed, toughness, and ability to accelerate - whether on offense, or as a kick returner - makes him a deadly weapon whose mere presence on the field is disruptive enough to change the complexion of the offense.

There are three Wildcats on this year's Walter Payton Award list - Szczur, Whitney, and senior OL Ben Ijalana.  Ijalana is a fantastic "O" lineman who not only makes the Wildcat offense go, he also has a very good shot to be thinking about another type of draft next spring - the NFL draft.  Whitney is a fantastic field general who is deserving of his shot at the Payton as well - though this season will determine if he can go from "legendary FCS-level quarterback" to "bona-fide NFL prospect".

But it's Szczur's presence that really takes the Wildcats from a fantastic CAA team to something on another level entirely.  A defensive line can do things to try to get past Ijalana - or just rush away from him.  A defense can key on quarterback Chris Whitney, a guy folks know will touch the ball more than forty times a game.  But Szczur is the closest thing to an undefensible guy that Villanova has.

It's going to be a huge challenge for Lehigh to be able to stop this multi-dimensional, talent-packed, proven offensive group.  Sure, they will be missing some pieces from their championship team from last year, notably WR Brandyn Harvey and OL Jonathan Bugli.  But that doesn't change a heck of a lot when it comes to defending this offense in 2010.


When you add senior LB Terence Thomas' Buck Buchanan award nomination, Lehigh could very well be hosting not only the defending CAA and FCS National champions this September, they will be also squaring off against four candidates for the highest individual honors that FCS has to offer.  That may be the most candidates that they've ever had to face off against in a single game.

And it would be remiss to not talk at all about the Wildcat defense - whose West Virginia-style 3-3-5 stack defense was the third-best rushing defense in all of FCS last year.  They do lose a lot more to graduation on defense than on offense, and their "D", who only gave up on average 14 points per game last year, should continue to be as nightmarish as ever.

Villanova is a star-studded team on both sides of the ball.  Last year, I said that they had a lot of answers to a lot of different questions.  This year, they still have many of those answers.  Beating them will be a colossal challenge.


mailman said…
does anybody know if Szczur was offered any place D1 in football or baseball? Villanova got a gem when they signed him
ngineer said…
Villanova (and Lehigh) are D1 football teams, only we're in the FCS division. I assume you mean and FBS school? I seem to recall he received 'interest' from a few FBS programs, but not the kind of interest ($cholarship) to make it worthwhile.
Anonymous said…
Shanty???????????? Szczur better buckle his chin strap, he's a marked cat. The #4 is now a BULLSEYE, get used to it

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