Biggest Strength in 2016: Could there have been an unlikelier Ivy League championship candidate than Penn’s first season under head coach Ray Priore? After losing back-to-back games vs. Dartmouth and Fordham and giving up more than 40 points in each game, the 1-3 Quakers then proceeded to win the rest of the games on their schedule, piling up points on teams like Yale, Harvard and Princeton while coming up with just enough stops to win. An Ivy League co-championship, based on Priore’s system coming together much, much farther ahead of schedule, was the reason.
Biggest Challenge In 2016: Could it – gasp! – have all been a fluke? Penn came out of nowhere to come back to win a share of the Ivy League title, but it will be different competing for the championship in 2016 with actual preseason burdens of winning the championship. They’ll also have to do so with a defense that gave up 21 points or more in eight of their ten games last season.
Biggest Departures:Two all-league players, one on offense and one one defense, leave some big gaps to fill. TE Ryan O’Malley, an all-around all-Ivy blocker and receiver, is in camp for the NFL’s Oakland Raiders this summer. LB Tyler Drake, who led the Quaker defense in tackles (80), tackles for loss (12 1/2) and sacks (8 1/2), also leaves Penn with a gaping hole at linebacker.
Players To Watch: Even with those two pieces gone, Penn boasts a dynamic pass-catch combination that promises to be even better in 2016 than they were in 2015.
Penn didn’t really get going until WR Justin Watson (1,082 yards, 9 TDs) blossomed as a deadly target of QB Alek Torgerson (1,996 yards passing, 19 TDs). Watson, a 6’3, 210 lb Bridgeville, PA native that always seems to find a way to get open, was a revelation last season and will be one of the most closely watched receivers in all of FCS.
The question is, can he keep up the same level of production when he is the main guy that opposing defenses will scheme against? And if Watson is constantly double-teamed, can Torgerson make them pay?
Biggest Game: at Dartmouth, 10/1/2016. In 2015, it wasn’t even close. Sure the scoreline read Dartmouth 41, Penn 20, but that doesn’t adequately describe the beatdown the Big Green enacted on the Quakers at Franklin field, pulverizing them 41-3 before pulling the starters and letting Penn score on their backups. Every Penn player must remember the feeling of that humiliating beatdown – and will be trying to make sure that it doesn’t happen again up in Hanover.
Rose-Colored Glasses Say: “Look around. Harvard, Yale and Dartmouth all are breaking in new QBs. Cornell and Columbia aren’t in our same league. Brown can’t stop anybody, and Princeton.. is Princeton. Contrast that to us, who have the best returning QB in the Ivy League, the deadliest receiving threat, our top two running backs. I think this is the year we remove the co- from Ivy League champions.”
Glass Half Empty Says:“We have a lot returning, but how are we going to replace Tyler Drake? He was, by far, our most dominating defensive player on a defense that, to put it mildly, made a lot of games more interesting than they should have been. Before I’m able to stamp the ‘dynasty’ label on this group of seniors, I want to see improvement on this defense.”
Penn In Two Sentences: It’s hard to go against a team and a coach with the best QB to WR combination in the Ivy League, especially when so many other teams need to recuperate at the most important position on offense. There’s a chance the Quaker defense might let Penn down on their quest to repeat, but judging by what Ray Priore did last year, I ain’t going against them.