Penn football looking for a "special" effort against Villanova
Penn will need a stronger performance in the kicking game to snap its losing streak to Villanova
September 26, 2013, 1:29 pm · Updated September 26, 2013, 9:25 pm·
Zoe Gan | DP
Max Kurucar was backed up into his own end zone for his first punt of the year, with rain steadily coming down.
His next punt got tipped due to a breakdown in protection, ultimately going for just 11 yards.
Suffice it to say, it was a rough first night on the job, a repeat of which the Penn football team will hope to avoid when they travel to take on city rival and 19th-ranked Villanova on Saturday.
“That’s how he got introduced to varsity action,” coach Al Bagnoli said. “He has potential. He has the ability to do what we ask him to do. It’s just like any other position.
“There’s a gradual learning curve.”
That seemed to be the case for the Quakers’ (1-0) entire special teams unit last Saturday.
After coming off a strong freshman season, the usually sure-footed sophomore kicker Connor Loftus missed an easy 34-yard attempt, as well as a 49-yarder that “he hit the hell out of but he pushed left,” Bagnoli said. “He went two-for-four and he should have gone three-for-four.”
Missing the short attempt wasn’t entirely his fault. Junior Spencer Kulcsar used to be the long-snapper, but since he is getting more touches on offense, Bagnoli put in senior Zack Tabor at center for the field goal attempt.
“The snap was a little high,” Bagnoli admitted. “It kind of threw the timing off, and as a result we missed the shot.”
It was also a night of firsts for two players that have been on the team the longest out of anyone and now have a chance to get off to a 2-0 start, something the Red and Blue haven’t accomplished since 2003.
After playing solely on defense for their college careers, seniors Dan Wilk and Sebastian Jaskowski were put back to return kicks and punts for the first time since high school.
“It’s a lot more fun,” Wilk said. “It started in camp, where the two of us were actually competing for the job, but you know, me and Seb are really good friends, so it became a friendly competition and it still is.
“We joke around back there about who gets the turn to do it.”
Wilk called for two fair catches on the punt return side while breaking out for a 33-yard run on his one kickoff return of the night.
“You catch the ball and then you get this one play where you can make an impact on the game and make something out of it,” Wilk said.
“They’re down and distance guys, so we want to be able to rotate those guys through so we don’t gas any of them,” Bagnoli said. “They’re both pretty dangerous guys who can catch the ball. They both have good running ability.”
While Wilk busted out with the largest kick return of the night, Jaskowski, a former running back in high school, had the longest punt return, taking one 11 yards.
When it started pouring during the second half, the fun melted away for the returners.
“It’s a little more nerve-racking,” Wilk said. “You flip the switch from, ‘Alright, let’s have some fun, let’s take this back’ to, ‘Alright, let’s just catch this damn ball and don’t have a negative impact on the game.’”
All aspects of the special teams will have to tighten up if Penn can hope to head to Villanova (1-2) on Saturday and snap a 12-game losing streak to the Wildcats that dates back to 1911.
While Villanova is in dire need of a victory after losing its first two games of the year, Penn will be content simply to see its players grow.
“This game has to do a lot of things,” Bagnoli said. “We have to go on the road and experience that against a real good team. It forces us to play well against elite athletes and on the road at William & Mary, at Brown, at Harvard, we’ll have the same issues.”
The Quakers know that these nonconference games are meant to battle-test them for Ivy play.
And playing a team like Villanova will rapidly speed up the learning curve that Penn — especially the special teams — will try to overcome before that first Ancient Eight contest.