It may be the penultimate game of the 2011 campaign, but this Saturday’s contest at Harvard is definitely the culmination of the Ivy League season for the Penn football team.
“When you get to this point in the season,” senior linebacker and captain Erik Rask said, “pretty much every game is a championship game.”
If the Quakers (5-3, 4-1 Ivy) win, they will be tied with Harvard (7-1, 5-0) and Brown for first in the conference with one game left against a middling Cornell team.
“Everybody knows it’s not like every other game,” Penn coach Al Bagnoli said. “We feel blessed to be having opportunities to play in meaningful games in Week 9.”
Once again, the Quakers will be in the national spotlight as the game will be broadcast on Versus. Thirty minutes after Penn’s noon kickoff, Brown takes on fifth-place Dartmouth in Providence, R.I.
For the Red and Blue to make good use of this significant opportunity, they will have to figure out a way to stop senior quarterback Collier Winters and the razor-sharp Crimson offense.
Winters has accumulated 1,107 pass yards, despite missing half of the season due to injury. In his absence, junior Colton Chapple kept the offense rolling, throwing for 12 touchdowns compared to just two interceptions.
Four Crimson receivers have caught at least 20 passes this season, and three have at least five touchdowns. Their ability to line up at different positions and switch up offensive formations without losing passing success makes this a particularly difficult challenge for the Quakers secondary.
“They’ve got some depth there,” Bagnoli said. “It’s like playing against the [New England] Patriots.”
While the Crimson will most likely run the same offense with either passer, having two who can perform at a high level is a definite bonus.
“Usually, [when] you have two quarterbacks, one plays a lot better than the other,” Rask said. “In their case … whoever’s in, they’re still a very explosive offense.”
Coming off a career-high 16 tackles last week against Princeton, Rask is still confident that Penn’s defensive pressure will be able to contain Harvard’s electric downfield game.
“No matter who you are, if you got pressure on you, it’s going to be a lot more difficult to complete the passes at a high percentage,” Rask said.
On the other side of the ball, the Quakers should show some more balance than they did last week against the Tigers, when they threw the ball 34 times.
Indeed, it will be imperative for Penn to open up a strong running game in order to loosen up the Crimson defense, which is holding opponents to just 18.0 points per game.
“We’re going to have to stay with the run longer than we did against Princeton,” Bagnoli said. “If you’re too one-dimensional, they collapse the pocket.”
If the Quakers can achieve the necessary offensive balance while keeping the Harvard quarterbacks in check, they will be one step closer to a third-straight year with at least a share of the Ivy League championship.