As in so many conflicts before it, Saturday’s Penn-Villanova game was decided by air superiority. The Penn football team struggled in equal measure to defend the pass and move the ball through the air as it fell to the Wildcats at home, 24-8.
A mid-game quarterback switch did little to change the Quakers’ offensive fortunes. After accounting for just 46 total yards of offense in the first half, starting quarterback Billy Ragone was pulled in favor of senior Andrew Holland.
Playing the entire second half plus the last series of the first, Holland threw for 102 yards on 11-for-17 passing. Despite leading Penn (0-2) down the field for its only score, a five-yard touchdown reception by Conner Scott, Holland never looked comfortable in the pocket and missed open receivers on multiple occasions.
“There is no quarterback controversy,” Penn coach Al Bagnoli insisted after the game. “[Ragone] bruised his collarbone last week. I didn’t want to get him too many hits.”
Bagnoli said Ragone’s injury was the reason he didn’t run with the ball much, and the team’s strategy was planned as such.
From the Wildcats’ first drive, their big, athletic wide receivers were running away from the Penn secondary. At 6-foot-4 and 6-foot-3 respectively, Norman White and Joe Price had big games against the smaller Penn secondary. Price had five receptions for 113 yards while White, playing only situationally due to a partially torn labrum, had three catches for 63 yards and a touchdown.
To add insult to injury, three of Villanova’s top receivers were sitting out of the game.
The Wildcats’ quarterback John Robertson worked from a stable pocket all afternoon and found wide receivers Price and White with relative ease. He also burned Penn with his legs, scoring from 26 yards out on a third-down scramble to push Villanova’s lead to 17-0.
The coaches of both teams pointed to Robertson’s performance as the key to the game.
“We went into the game philosophically trying to stop the run … [Robertson] probably had his best passing game that he’s had all year,” Bagnoli said. “And unfortunately for us it came at a very inopportune time.”
The effective passing game set up the running game for Villanova (3-1) in the second half as the Wildcats kept the ball on the ground after opening up a three-score lead. In total, they tallied 225 yards on the ground with the vast majority coming in the second half.
According to Villanova coach Andy Talley, it was all in the plan.
“When you line up and try to go nose-to-nose with them, that’s what they like,” Talley said. “And I didn’t know if we could do it today. I was very worried about this game and that we would get in a slugfest with them and come out on the short end.”
So without their starting running back Austin Medley, who was out with a hamstring injury, the Wildcats took to the air in the first half, exploiting a Penn secondary that has struggled to cover multiple athletic receivers.
Meanwhile, special teams was a mixed bag for the Quakers. After the opening drive stalled, placekicker Conor Loftus missed a field goal from 41 yards out that would have been the first three points of the game. Bagnoli admitted that punter Scott Lopano was the best player on the team on Saturday as he continually pinned the Wildcats deep in their own territory, including one 67-yard effort.
After dropping their first two games, the Quakers now shift their focus north to Hanover, N.H., where they’ll face Dartmouth in their first Ivy League contest of the season.
Senior defensive back Sebastian Jaskowski believes the tough non-conference schedule is a net positive for Penn.
“It’s really going to prepare us for next week when maybe their receivers aren’t as good, maybe their quarterback isn’t as good,” he said. “It really prepares us for the Ivy League season.”
Senior running back Jeff Jack, referring to the Hall of Champions in Weightman Hall, said, “You don’t get your picture on the wall by beating Villanova.
“Really, we’re all here for one reason [and] that’s to win an Ivy League championship. We just have to put it together.”