A year ago, the Penn football team boasted one of the most explosive offenses in the Ivy League. Fast forward a year, and the defending conference co-champions lie mired in uncertainty about who will start at quarterback.
Last year, senior quarterback Alek Torgersen paced a Quaker attack that averaged over 27 points and almost 400 yards of total offense per game. The signal caller finished his career as Penn’s all-time leader in passing touchdowns and completion percentage. Yale got the chance to see the incendiary Quaker aerial attack up close last October in a 42–7 loss, in which Torgersen threw for four touchdowns.
This season, however, the wheels have fallen off the bus for the Quakers. After posting a 6–1 league mark to claim a share of the title last year, they are winless in the Ancient Eight and seeking to snap a three-game losing streak on Saturday. Yale (4–1, 1–1 Ivy) heads into Franklin Field looking to keep its championship dreams alive, while Penn (2–3, 0–2) attempts to rebound from a pair of last-second defeats to Ivy League co-leaders Columbia and Dartmouth. The Elis dominated Holy Cross 32–0 last weekend with a comprehensive performance in every stage of the game.
“That’s a small snapshot view of our team,” head coach Tony Reno said. “We have standards. We don’t play for a score, we play for standards. Each guy has individual standards, and we have standards as a team. I have very high standards for this group of guys, and they have them for themselves.”
The Quakers come into the game with questions swirling around the quarterback spot following Torgersen’s departure. Senior signal caller Will Fischer-Colbrie started the team’s season-opener versus Ohio Dominican and threw for four touchdowns in a victory over Lehigh the next week, but the former Colorado quarterback has struggled mightily since then.
In the home defeat to Dartmouth, Fisher-Colbrie threw for just 158 yards and led his team to only 13 points. The following week against Central Connecticut State, the 6-foot-1-inch senior threw two interceptions and completed the same number of passes before an injury gave backup Nick Robinson the opportunity to take over. The sophomore played well in his first collegiate appearance, completing 68 percent of his passes for three touchdowns, but the Quakers still slumped to a three-touchdown defeat.
Despite Robinson’s performance, Fisher-Colbrie again got the starting nod at Columbia but managed only 186 yards through the air and threw another two interceptions in an overtime defeat. Now, as Penn looks to notch its first victory in conference play, head coach Ray Priore will have an interesting decision to make since the Quakers’ aspirations to remain competitive hang in the balance against the Bulldogs’ league-worst passing defense. No school has ever won an Ivy League title with two or more losses since Dartmouth, Harvard and Penn tied for the crown in 1982 with identical 5–2 records.
Regardless of who starts at quarterback, wide receiver Justin Watson will play an integral role in the Quakers’ passing attack. Last season at the Yale Bowl, the unanimous first-team All-Ivy selection finished with 166 yards on 10 completions and also scored three touchdowns. In 2016, Watson was named a finalist for the Walter Payton Award, handed out annually to the best offensive player in the Football Championship Subdivision. Through five games this season, Watson leads all Ivy League wideouts with seven touchdowns and already has 467 receiving yards.
Yale, which leads the FCS in sacks per game, will need to apply a constant pass rush as it did against Holy Cross to minimize the effectiveness of Watson and Penn’s aerial attack. Last Saturday, the Bulldogs sacked Crusaders quarterback Peter Pujals four times, limiting him to just 89 yards through the air. Linebacker Matthew Oplinger ’18 registered three of those sacks as the Elis’ steady pass rush forced the fifth-year signal-caller to squeeze the ball into tight throwing windows on obvious passing situations.
“In the past few weeks we’ve been working around different patterns, different techniques,” Oplinger said. “We put an emphasis this week on pass rush. For myself, I needed to improve on it, so the coaches really helped me hone in on what I needed to do, giving me a couple different moves to work with. They put me in good positions to be able to make plays, and I’m just glad I was able to capitalize.”
Running back Tre Solomon, another one of the Quakers’ unanimous first-team All-Ivy selections in 2016, had only five rushing attempts in the team’s first four games due to an injury. In his absence, backup tailback Karekin Brooks emerged as a breakout star. The sophomore leads the Ivy League in overall rushing, averaging over 117 yards per game, and even threw for a touchdown in Penn’s victory over Lehigh. Solomon returned last week in the loss to the Lions, however, running for 43 yards on 12 carries, so Yale should expect both tailbacks to be featured prominently on Saturday.
The Quaker defense is led by linebacker Nick Miller, who sits third in the FCS in solo tackles per game and made a team-high 11 total tackles against Yale last season. Miller anchors a scoring defense ranked last overall in the Ivy League, surrendering 32.6 points per contest, but he is second among all conference players in interceptions and fumble recoveries. Miller, alongside linebacker Colton Moskal and defensive end Louis Vecchio, is one of three returning All-Ivy players on the Quakers’ defensive front, so calling plays to the boundary such as screen passes may be able to open up running plays between the tackles for the Bulldogs.
“Receiver screens are a huge part of our offense,” wide receiver Michael Siragusa Jr. ’18 said. “When you have a strong push from the offensive line, and you have dynamic backs who can catch out of the backfield and also run, breaking tackles and going down the sidelines, that opens it up for [the wide receivers] because the safeties and corners have to be aware of the running backs. Then you can hit them out wide, and eventually that opens up throwing the ball deep. That’s like a triple-threat offense right there.”
Yale and Penn will kick off at 1 p.m. from Franklin Field.
Joey Kamm | firstname.lastname@example.org