Steele | Keep Penn football’s non-conference play in perspective
September 30, 2013, 10:51 pm·
Laura Francis | DP
With 1:14 left in the first quarter of Penn football’s game against Villanova on Saturday, Connor Loftus lined up for a 42-yard field goal. The Quakers trailed 7-0, and the junior kicker looked to cut into the Wildcats’ lead.
What happened next was a microcosm of Penn’s consistent failure to match up to its cross-town, non-conference rival over the past 102 seasons.
Before Loftus could get his kick away, the referee blew his whistle and threw a flag. Villanova was penalized for an illegal substitution, meaning Loftus’ kick would be five yards shorter.
That should have made the Red and Blue scoring a little easier, right? After all, Loftus has only converted 37.5 percent of field goal attempts from beyond 40 yards in his career.
Yet despite a perfect snap, Loftus’ kick was blocked, and bounced perfectly into the hands of Villanova senior defensive back Craig James. With a convoy behind him, James ran 73 yards for a touchdown, taking with him any chance Penn had of leaving Villanova with a victory.
While the Quakers showed signs of life for the first quarter on Saturday, there were few other bright spots for the defending Ivy League champions. Senior wide receiver Conner Scott’s stats were nice — compiling 11 catches for 129 yards — but every other offensive weapon was shut down.
And as the Wildcats kept pounding Penn both on the ground and through the air, the Quakers seemed to give a pretty definitive answer as to whether they gained anything from playing Villanova.
The negative ramifications of playing a quality nonconference opponent are clear. After all, a win against Villanova, William & Mary or even Lafayette doesn’t really contribute anything to the Quakers season other than pride.
There is exactly one end goal for Penn football, and it has been this way for decades: win the Ivy League title, because there is nothing else to play for.
A season ago, Penn played in only 10 games, with seven of those coming against Ivy League opponents.
The 2012 Alabama squad, on the other hand, played 14 games on its way to its third national championship in four years.
The difference between the Quakers and Crimson Tide, however, is that Alabama played in twice as many meaningful games. Lose a nonconference game to Michigan, Western Kentucky or Florida Atlantic, and an FBS team can virtually kiss its title chances goodbye.
So yes, it is easy to understand why many Penn fans are outraged at the football program for continuing to schedule games against tough CAA opponents, especially when the result has no meaning.
Still, maybe the positive outcomes from games like those against Villanova are more significant than the negative effects, even if they cannot be seen immediately.
While the Quakers are certainly an experienced team, Saturday’s game marked only their second matchup of 2013. Across town, Villanova has seen game action four times since Aug. 31.
And while other Ancient Eight teams match up with weaker opponents like San Diego, Georgetown or Monmouth, the Quakers are doing their very best to challenge themselves before beginning Ivy play. Teams get better by playing more talented opponents, not by destroying a lowly Hoyas team.
In the end, it doesn’t matter if Penn goes undefeated or winless against its non-conference foes. Just because Harvard finished with a better overall record than the Quakers last season doesn’t mean they’re guaranteed an Ivy title.
Penn, like Alabama a season ago, was able to obtain a similar accomplishment, despite the two teams’ differences in schedule. Both achieved their end goal for the third time in four seasons.
And ultimately, if Penn is able to go undefeated in the Ivy season and win the league for the fourth time since 2009, no one will care about a 29-point loss to Villanova.