Ahead of their first round FCS Playoffs matchup at Southeastern Louisiana, Villanova Wildcats coach Mark Ferrante said they were unfazed by being sent away from home despite a No. 8 national ranking.
He called theirs “a road warrior mentality.”
If 2019 Villanova is indeed the Road Warriors, just call the tag team of Dan Smith and Changa Hodge Animal and Hawk.
The quarterback-receiver duo unloaded their own Doomsday Device on opposing defenses to the tune of 1,020 yards and 12 touchdowns in the regular season. Hodge became the first Wildcat in 20 years to surpass 1,000 yards receiving in a season.
His 236 yards in a Battle of the Blue rout of rival Delaware marked the first 200-plus-yard game at Villanova in 23 years, and his four touchdown receptions matched a mark not reached in the program since 1971.
A performance worthy many decades of records came four years in the making.
“This is the first year in three seasons where Changa has been healthy throughout,” Ferrante said. “Knock on wood, that will continue. He played as a true freshman and we thought he was going to have a good start to the career, then continue to move from there.”
Hodge came into Villanova from East Strousdburgh in 2016, demonstrating an immediate capacity to be a big-play threat. His performance in the Battle of the Blue that season foreshadowed things to come -- but due to injury, the full capacity of Hodge’s game-changing had to wait.
He went down in the season-opener against Temple to begin 2017. Hodge played 10 games in 2018, missing only a non-conference date with Bucknell. But the receiver said he was not up to 100 percent for the campaign.
He said “staying in treatment” during the offseason “was big,” preparing himself physically for 2019.
That was one element to the offseason that precipitated Hodge’s record-setting season. The other was the arrival of Smith, a transfer from Campbell. Smith is a Walter Payton Award finalist and the only quarterback with at least 30 passing and 10 rushing touchdowns.
Throwing to a dynamite tag-team partner like Hodge has helped facilitate the quarterback’s astronomical numbers. Ferrante praised Smith’s ability to spread the ball around a variety of Wildcats -- and, indeed, four players have at least 30 receptions on the year -- but Hodge is responsible for more than one-third of Smith’s scoring strikes.
No one would get the impression watching them play that they have only been teammates since the summer. And that was the case right from Week 0, when Smith hit Hodge on a 45-yard strike in the season-opening romp over Colgate.
“It’s been a progression, to be honest” Ferrante said. “They got together in the summer when they had player-run 7-on-7s.”
“We got right to throwing on the field before workouts and camp,” Hodge explained. “That was something we took a lot of pride in. We knew what we had to do to have a successful offensive season.”
And a successful offensive season, the Wildcats have had. Villanova capped the regular season averaging 36.1 points per game. The 55 points dropped on Delaware marked a season-high.
Villanova’s first time hitting the 50-point mark, meanwhile, was a watershed moment in the outlook for the campaign. Although the Wildcats steamrolled through the non-conference slate, Hodge said it was the 52-45 win at Towson on Sept. 21 that really signaled 2019 could be a special autumn for Villanova football.
Villanova held a lead late in that one, trailed in the final minutes, then rallied to win in overtime. Going into Johnny Unitas Stadium against a Top 10-ranked opponent signaled the arrival of Villanova as the Road Warriors.
“It showed we could get through adversity,” Hodge said. “That if we stay positive, stick together, we can come out on top.”
The Wildcats must summon that same fortitude away from home all the way to Frisco on this, the 10-year anniversary of the program’s 2009 national championship. A win at Southeastern Louisiana sets up a rematch of the ‘09 title game with Montana — only, this time, it would be in Missoula.
But from the Gulf Coast to the Rocky Mountains to the Atlantic Coast, Villanova has something clicking that travels well. It starts with a powerful tag team of Hodge and Smith.