Don’t blame Billy Ragone.
You won’t find the answer as to why the Quakers nearly fell at home to lowly Columbia if you point your finger at No. 10. Ragone coolly threw for 139 yards and two touchdown passes in the fourth quarter against a defense which came into the game tied for seventh in the Football Championship Subdivision in sacks and third in the Ivy League in interceptions.
And despite having Lions linemen and linebackers in his grill all afternoon long, Ragone never turned the ball over. He hasn’t thrown a pick since the season opener.
So Ragone isn’t a valid scapegoat.
Penn’s inexplicable defensive collapse against the last-ranked Ivy offense was infinitely more alarming.
Columbia moved the ball at will in the second half and racked up 475 total offensive yards in the game, almost 200 over its season average. The Lions gashed Penn on the ground again and again, rushing for 196 yards and 5.4 yards per carry. Not bad for a team that came in averaging barely 100 yards rushing per game before Saturday.
The Lions came in with just three offensive touchdowns on the year and hadn’t scored more than 14 points in a game in 2012 before putting up 20 at Penn’s expense.
The numbers don’t lie. From the middle of the third quarter to the 10:57 mark of the fourth, Columbia had three drives that covered 214 yards and resulted in two touchdowns and a blocked field goal attempt.
What the stats won’t tell you is how utterly defeated the Quakers looked during that stretch. Many linebackers and linemen were fatigued after repeatedly failing to get off the field, tiredly putting their hands on their hips in between plays and missing plenty of easy tackles that will make everyone in the film room cringe in unison this week.
The stats won’t tell you just how easy Columbia running back Marcorus Garrett’s 31-yard touchdown jaunt was as he toted the rock untouched to open up a 10-point lead for the Lions with 10:57 remaining in the game. Garrett’s run finished a drive in which the Quakers gave up three big plays in a row and a Columbia touchdown suddenly felt like a forgone conclusion.
Senior defensive lineman and captain Brandon Copeland, the heart and soul of this defense, won’t tell you any of that either.
“I wouldn’t say it was too much fatigue,” he said after the game. “Let’s not downplay their coaching. Those guys played a great game. They found the open spots, got receivers open, things like that. I’ll be the first to step up and say myself, we need to get there a lot quicker than we have been.”
A great game? For an offense as inept as Columbia’s, having four of its final six drives go for at least 60 yards is nothing short of amazing.
And that takes us to Columbia’s final drive, in which the Lions marched 73 yards in nine plays and just 50 seconds. Columbia wound up just two yards short of a game-winning touchdown.
The drive hearkened back to the theme of the 2012 Penn defense: managing to turn opposing offenses’ weaknesses into strengths.
The Quakers allowed Villanova freshman quarterback John Robertson to let loose, throwing the football for more than 200 yards after he had been a largely ineffective passer and averaged just 128 yards passing in his first three games as a collegiate quarterback. Penn allowed Dartmouth freshman quarterback Alex Park to throw for two touchdowns and nearly double his career passing yards per game average in just his third collegiate start.
When they’re not getting beat through the air by a rookie quarterback, the Quakers are getting physically dominated by an inferior rushing attack like Columbia’s. And since the season opener, they haven’t forced a single turnover.
“We just as a defense need to settle down when big plays happen and play our responsibilities and let the rest fall where it may,” Copeland said.
Penn’s defense still has plenty of time to settle down. But as opposing offenses get sharper (read: Harvard and Cornell), the ‘D’ will be even more hard-pressed to prove it’s not the weak link on this team.
Ultimately, Billy Ragone is a proven commodity and this young defense isn’t. If you’re wondering why Penn’s chances at a third Ivy crown in four years don’t seem so good right now, look no further than the defensive side of the football.
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 email@example.com.
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