During the preseason, coach Al Bagnoli, offensive coordinator Jon McLaughlin and senior quarterback Billy Ragone all promised that the Quakers would pass the ball more often this season.
They’ve kept that promise — and with the deepest and most experienced receiving corps the Quakers have enjoyed in a long time, they’re getting the right results.
Penn (1-3, 1-0 Ivy) currently ranks third in the Ivy League in passing offense despite moving the ball aerially against three teams which rank among the top 30 in the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) in passing efficiency defense.
The threat of the pass is just what the doctor ordered as the Quakers prepare to take on Columbia (1-3, 0-1) at Franklin Field on Saturday, since the Lions rank seventh in the Ancient Eight in pass defense efficiency.
“This is as good as depth as we’ve ever had,” McLaughlin said. “The noticeable thing about our receiving corps this year is just how much depth there is. You can go down to 10, 11, 12, 13, 14 on the roster, and they’re football players. That’s good when you have 14 receivers that all belong on a college football field.”
No one belongs on the field more than junior wide receiver Conner Scott, who currently ranks second in the Ivy League in both receptions and receiving yards per game.
Scott’s sure hands and fluid route-running have instilled confidence in his quarterbacks to pass more and attracted enough double coverages to free up the Quakers’ many other offensive weapons.
“Conner’s a great playmaking kid,” fellow junior receiver Ryan Mitchell said. “I’ve never seen a kid with as good as hands as he has. He runs great routes. Just an overall pure receiver.”
McLaughlin believes it’s becoming easier to compare Scott favorably to Ryan Calvert, who led the team in receiving last season before graduating.
“You would take 10 Ryan Calverts in your receiving corps any day just because of who they are,” McLaughlin said. “I feel the same way about Conner Scott. To say we traded one great player for another great player in getting Conner back from his injury, it’s a little bit early to say that. But productivity-wise you would say that.”
Yet Penn’s passing game has extended far beyond Scott, who is only one of four players with at least 10 receptions thus far. Ranking second in receiving yards and first in leadership is fifth-year senior Joe Holder, whose broken fibula in last week’s loss to William & Mary may have ended his college career.
“When he speaks, people listen, including me,” Scott said. “When he sees something on the sideline, he’s the first to get in your face. I remember in the locker room at halftime for the William & Mary game, we were a little too rah-rah for the situation and he just said it to us straight, ‘It’s time to sack up and go play football.’”
But the blow of Holder’s absence should be softened not just by Penn’s depth at receiver but also by the disciplined route-running of veterans such as Mitchell and senior running backs Lyle Marsh and Jeff Jack. Such precision is crucial in executing the short, high-percentage aerial attack which McLaughlin has employed early and often this season to suit Ragone’s passing style.
“We’re very proud of our pass game — minus the first half against Lafayette,” McLaughlin said. “But we need to figure out how to have more explosive plays in the pass game other than just those quick outs. We’re practicing them and we just have to find the right situations to call them in in the next few games.”
Those situations will come soon. Harvard and Brown rank first and second respectively among the Ivies in rushing defense. In fact, the Crimson are allowing a staggeringly low 48 rushing yards per game. Penn’s road to Ivy glory is likely to require a field day or two through the air.
“We’re more experienced [at receiver],” Mitchell said. “We’ve got a lot more kids on the field than we did last year. We played a higher level of competition in the [non-conference schedule] … We’re stronger suited to handle what’s coming.”