There are many reasons why one should expect Penn to beat Cornell on Saturday to win the Ivy Championship outright — the Quakers have the upper hand in momentum, experience and physicality over the Big Red.
All of these advantages stem directly from Penn’s linebacking corps.
Last week, the Quakers’ linebackers wreaked havoc on Harvard’s vaunted offense, combining for six tackles for a loss and two sacks. Two weeks ago, with Princeton facing third-and-goal from Penn’s 6-yard line with under 30 seconds to play, senior linebacker Steve Lias forced a fumble that clinched the game for the Quakers.
And sophomore linebacker Dan Davis has been a defensive demon all season long, leading the team in tackles for a loss and ranking third in total tackles despite never having started a game prior to this season.
It’s this increasingly consistent backfield penetration from the linebacking unit that will slow down Cornell’s No. 1 passing offense on Saturday.
“I think [the linebackers] are getting a bit more confidence,” linebackers coach Dave Wood said. “That was the thing earlier in the year with their inconsistent play at times — it’s really about having confidence in what gaps they have, what they are doing in coverage in the all-around game.”
Perhaps no player in the Ivy League has developed more impressively than Davis, whose journey from defensive lineman in high school to defensive playmaker extraordinaire at Penn is now complete.
“Dan’s already at the point in his career where he’s a more talented player [than me],” Lias said. “He flies around and makes plays all over the field, so I don’t think he wants to measure himself against my performance but maybe some of the performances of the past, like [two-time first-team All-Ivy] Erik Rask and [2009 co-Ivy League MVP] Jake Lewko.”
But will this linebacking corps be enough against Cornell quarterback Jeff Mathews, who infamously torched the Quakers for 548 passing yards and five touchdowns a year ago? Absolutely.
Last week, Mathews was stymied by a Columbia defense that had given up nine offensive touchdowns to Harvard the week before. He was sacked six times, threw a pick and racked up only 140 yards passing on 12 attempts. Against a Penn team with an outright Ivy crown to play for, the Big Red offense doesn’t look so big and bad anymore.
But Penn’s linebackers do, with a trio of three defenders who will all present different problems for Cornell’s mediocre offensive line in pass-rushing situations.
“Dan is a real fast downhill reader, makes a bunch of plays that way,” Wood said. “Steve is a physical presence inside in packing his gap, doing his job, doing everything we ask Steve Lias to do. [Junior linebacker] Dave Park is a mixture of that in coverage aspects, he’s done a great job all year of sniffing out screens and playing quarterbacks, dropping into coverage.”
It’s likely that Penn’s veteran defensive line will create pass-rushing lanes for the linebacking corps that will force him to take more checkdowns than he would like. If Mathews is to go gunslinging on nearly every snap, expect Lias, Davis and Park to pin their ears back and go after him.
When they do, they’ll have much more fire in their bellies than they did when Mathews embarrassed them at Franklin Field a year ago.
“I think we were a little disappointed coming off the Harvard loss last year,” Wood said. “I think that was a tough one for all of us to handle. I think we knew we didn’t really play well and that lingered in preparation for Cornell. They came in with lot of confidence, and we were still feeling sorry for ourselves.”
While it’s impossible to say for sure just how mopey Cornell is feeling after clinching a losing Ivy season last week against the lowly Lions, the tables have turned nonetheless. Penn’s linebackers have performed successfully under pressure each of the last three weeks, and with their eyes on the prize, that’s not about to change.
“They’re constantly rotating and they’ve really picked up one another and been a tight group,” Wood said. “When one of them makes a great play, the next guy wants to make a great play.”
They’ll have to take turns a lot on Saturday.
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.