The University of Pennsylvania pounded Yale 41-20 last season on the way to winning its third Ivy League Championship in five years. That three-touchdown margin of victory was the closest Ivy League game the Quakers played last season. And, once again, the 2003 Quakers are expected to field a strong team, including many of their best players from last autumn.
Both the USA Today/ESPN and Sports Network Football Polls placed Pennsylvania among the top 25 in Div. I-AA. The Quakers also beat out Harvard and Yale, 123 points to 108 points and 103 points, respectively, in the 2003 Ivy League Media Football Preseason Poll.
With star quarterback Mike Mitchell returning as a starter and captain, accompanied by his entire offensive line from last year, Pennsylvania is in great position to retain the Ancient Eight crown.
But other key elements of the Quaker offense will not be present. Wide receiver Rob Milanese, who shattered Penn’s previous records for both receptions and receiving yards, graduated and has signed a free agent contract with the New England Patriots. Nor will the Quakers have running back Stephen Faulk, tight end Mike Michaleski or kicker Roman Galas.
Perhaps even more devastating to the Quakers will be their losses on the other side of the ball. All-Ivy selections safety Vince Alexander, linebacker Travis Belden and defensive end Chris Pennington have graduated.
But the Quakers are not rattled. Head coach Al Bagnoli, who has headed defending Ivy League championship teams six times in the last 12 years, will command a powerful returning team, including 41 returning letter-winners and 14 starters from last year. The big question is who will fill in for Milanese and graduated receiver Erik Bolinder. Pennsylvania looks to senior Joe Phillips and junior Dan Castles to fill the gaps. Bagnoli said that while Milanese will leave a void that would be hard for any one player to fill, he expects the team to adapt overall.
“[I] can’t ask for a single person to make up for all-time program greats such as Rob Milanese. My hope is that our younger players, along with the seniors, share the load and [do] not try to do something they are not capable of doing,” Bagnoli said.
Penn’s defense has more worries on its hands. The center of the defensive line will be solid, with senior veterans Kyle Chaffin and Ryan Strahlendorff helping to maintain an impenetrable front. But there will be more noticeable changes at the ends, where last year’s backups Stacy Merritt and Robert Fallon will now be asked to start.
Penn cannot take anything for granted; of the six times the program has attempted to defend its Ivy League championship in the last 12 years, it has retained the crown only once, from 1993 to 1994. Bagnoli said that a younger team would make certain positions more vulnerable to failure than in past years.
“[Our] strengths are the offensive line and defensive line,” Bagnoli said. “[Our] weakness is inexperience at wide receiver and linebacker.”
The Quakers now find themselves being compared to last year’s Harvard team, the 2001 Ivy League champions who were predicted to rule the conference, only to be swept under the rug by a dominating Pennsylvania squad 44-9.
At a press conference Aug. 11, Bagnoli said his position was not an enviable one.
“I did not enjoy being [picked first],” Bagnoli said. “Like [Harvard head coach] Tim [Murphy] said last year, you automatically have a bull’s-eye on your back. I think most kids, as much as you try to shield them from what the press says, start to believe [everything they hear]. I actually liked it last year when we were picked fourth.”
But with no clear challengers to their throne, repeat is just what Pennsylvania might do.