As Saturday’s showdown with Villanova approaches, Penn football coach Al Bagnoli has assumed the role of God. Whether the sky will fall this weekend is entirely up to him.
All Bagnoli has to do to make the sky fall is start Billy Ragone at quarterback this weekend for the 20th game of his career. At least that’s what it probably feels like for Quakers fans.
But it’s too early to go Chicken Little on Bagnoli’s crew. After all, we’ve been down this path with Ragone before. He threw two picks against both Lafayette and Villanova to start the season last year, giving no indication of the turnaround to come. Over the next three games, Ragone completed 64 percent of his passes, engineered a game-winning, 13-play, 89-yard drive at Dartmouth and threw zero interceptions.
The rest of 2011 didn’t play out like the Quakers would have hoped, but the five-game stretch that started the season does suggest that with Ragone, it’s okay to take the good with the bad.
There is still room in this offense for senior quarterback Andrew Holland, who has the strong arm and pure pocket presence that the Quakers will surely need at times this season. Bagnoli has a history of subbing in backup quarterbacks on occasion, and Ragone’s inconsistency last year means he shouldn’t have the starting quarterback spot 100 percent locked down anymore.
But Ragone has always been Bagnoli’s guy, and you can bet that Ragone’s dangerous legs, solid leadership and history of being clutch will keep him from ultimately being thrown to the sideline. One awful night doesn’t automatically necessitate a consistent two-quarterback system, and there’s no use shaking his confidence further than it already has been by yo-yoing him and Holland up and down the depth chart.
The weapons at Ragone’s disposal comprise the perfect supporting cast to mask his poor decision-making. Ragone was asked to do too much too early at Lafayette, throwing downfield on plays that required him to look through his progressions and avoid staring down targets, skills he has rarely shown in the past. Perhaps more of a West Coast-style offensive approach, in which Ragone would be asked to quickly and often throw short, blind passes, is the best offensive option going forward.
The weapons are tailor-made for such an approach. Senior running back Lyle Marsh did his best Brian Westbrook impersonation on Saturday, catching eight balls for 66 yards and two touchdowns out of the backfield. Conner Scott’s 12 catches for 161 yards signal that he can handle being the go-to guy in this offense. Scott showed comfort catching in heavy traffic in addition to being a downfield threat.
Junior Ryan Mitchell and senior Joe Holder are veteran wide receivers, so they certainly have enough experience to be the kind of precise route-runners Ragone would need to get the ball out of his hands in a jiffy and on target.
Imagine how much the Quakers would dominate time of possession if they mixed this methodical passing approach with heavy doses of Marsh and fellow senior running backs Brandon Colavita and Jeff Jack.
And no one is turning Chicken Little on the defense, which despite its youth kept the Leopards much more in check than it did a year ago. Lafayette running back Ross Scheuerman may have averaged 6.8 yards per carry last season against the Quakers, but Penn held him to just 47 rushing yards and 3.5 yards per carry on Saturday. The Quakers never wore down defensively despite the Leopards conservatively grinding it out with a lead and exceptional field position for much of the game.
Any team that can endure eight turnovers on the road in a hostile environment with a young defense and still have a chance to tie the game in the final minutes is formidable. If the Penn coaching staff can be more creative with how it utilizes Ragone, this team will be in a better position offensively to challenge for the Ivy crown than it was a year ago.
So the sky’s not falling. It’s brighter now than it was Saturday afternoon, because although Ragone is inconsistent, it just means the roller coaster has nowhere to go but up. Continuity will keep it going in the right direction.
MIKE TONY is a junior English and history major from Uniontown, Pa., and is an associate sports editor of The Daily Pennsylvanian. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.