In sports, we often think of a game in terms of offense and defense.
In a high-scoring game, a more high-powered offense typically emerges victorious. In a low-scoring game, the more stifling defense usually wins.
But in football, special teams serves as the bridge between the two and can sometimes determine a game’s outcome.
In Penn’s 20-17 victory over Brown, neither team was dominant on offense or defense. Coach Bagnoli used the term “choppy” to describe his team’s performance on both sides of the football.
Penn’s offense was particularly inefficient, scoring two touchdowns but punting eight times on the day.
After a similarly poor offensive showing against Yale on Oct. 20, offensive lineman Michael Pinciotti said that “field goals don’t win games, touchdowns do.” But Saturday’s game proved him wrong, as special teams made the difference.
In place of Billy Ragone or Brandon Copeland, special teamers Dexter Davis and Connor Loftus were the game’s heroes.
Following a Brown field goal early in the fourth quarter to take a 17-14 lead, Davis returned the kickoff to Brown’s 49-yard line. As a result, Penn’s 21-yard drive was enough to put them in decent field goal position.
Loftus, who missed a 21-yarder the week before at Yale, converted on a 45-yard field goal — the longest of his career — to tie the game. Just a few minutes later, he kicked the game-winning 35-yarder.
“In any close game, special teams play tilts field position,” Bagnoli said after the win. “Ultimately it’s how tight games are won.”
In a game that featured 14 punts between the two teams, field position was critical. Through effective special teams, Penn forced Brown to start drives within its own 20-yard line five times, making it easier for the Quakers’ defense to stifle the Bears.
Brown’s poor field position also gave Penn’s offense more time to rest on the sidelines, as the Bears had several long drives which ended without points.
Penn’s special teams has been a strength all season. In fact, it may be fair to say that it has been the Quakers’ only consistent unit this year.
Penn leads the league in kickoff return yards. Loftus is tied for first in the Ivy League in field goal percentage among kickers who have played in every game this season. Senior Scott Lopano is third in the Ancient Eight in average yards per punt at 41.6.
Therefore, Penn should devise a gameplan that plays to this strength. Instead of trying to air it out with a run-first quarterback whose receiving weapons have been depleted, Penn should focus on its ground game.
Pounding the ball with senior running backs Lyle Marsh and Jeff Jack will allow the Quakers to have more convertible third downs and extend their drives. By doing so, Penn can win the field position battle.
Let’s face it. Though Penn may be tied for first place in the Ivy League, neither its offense nor defense has been dominant this season.
But its special teams has been. So the Red and Blue should try to leverage this strength more, as they did on Saturday, if they want to stay atop the Ivy League.
DAVID GREENBAUM is a senior economics and international relations major from Short Hills, N.J. He can be reached at dpsports@theDP.com.