D-line no longer a question mark for Penn football
The Quakers D-line has proved to be an important part of the defense, especially against Lafayette
October 2, 2013, 12:51 pm · Updated October 3, 2013, 12:02 am·
Rachel Bluestein | DP
At the beginning of this season, Penn football’s defensive line was labeled as a question mark — people didn’t know whether they could stack up with last year’s senior-laden defensive front.
But the thing with question marks is that they lead to answers.
With just two seniors and multiple players with less than five games at the varsity level, it would have been understandable to doubt this inexperienced group could hold up.
Yet, from the beginning of the Quakers’ first game, the defensive line not only shed the question mark, they also set the tone for the Red and Blue’s season-opening victory with an exclamation point.
Against Lafayette, Penn’s defense was out in full force led by the push up front. On the Leopards’ first three drives, their quarterback was sacked three times, with one particularly devastating hit resulting in a forced fumble that was recovered by sophomore lineman Austin Taps.
“I thought [the Lafayette performance] was tremendous,” defensive line coach Jim Schaefer said. “I didn’t expect them to be that dominant at first. They really picked it up and did a great job.”
In total, the Leopards’ QBs on the night were sacked a total of six times, making a strong statement as the young Quakers took apart an experienced Lafayette line.
Yet the D-line did not come out of the Lafayette game unscathed. Junior Jimmy Wagner went down for a few plays while Taps injured his calf, ultimately preventing him from playing in Saturday’s loss to Villanova a week later.
But as players went down, others stepped up. When Wagner went to the sidelines against Lafayette, sophomore Dan Connaughton came into the game and pressured backup quarterback Andrew Dzurik on the subsequent passing play, displaying the Quakers’ strong depth.
“Unfortunately we’ve needed [that depth],” senior lineman Alex Kahn said. “Everyone has gone down once or twice and people have been stepping up and doing great.”
And while Penn’s line struggled against Villanova, there were multiple bright spots, including sophomore linebacker Lukas Nossem getting his first varsity reps in a slightly unfamiliar position on the D-line, recording a tackle in the Wildcats’ backfield for a four-yard loss.
“It is pretty incredible when we can rotate two or three guys at a position for an entire game and not have any glaring gaps in the defense,” Wagner said. “It keeps everyone fresh.”
In the process of keeping all the linemen fresh, many new faces have found their way onto the line, including Nossem, junior Joe Naji and sophomore Tanner Thexton.
With those players receiving their first varsity snaps, jitters were only natural.
“Tanner was very nervous before the [Lafayette] game. He was very nervous the first series,” Schaefer said. “You just have to get that out of your system. If you weren’t nervous, there’d be something wrong with you.”
And Thexton was one of the players that stepped up in that first game, contributing two tackles and establishing a recurring presence in the Leopards’ backfield.
Thanks in large part to those younger players, the Red and Blue have little to worry about on their defensive line, a big reason for Penn’s No. 2 rank in the Ivy League in sacks.
Now that the defensive line is no longer a question mark, one might think the proverbial monkey is off the linemen’s backs. But that’s far from the truth.
“When we talked in the beginning of the year, the D-line was a question. I don’t think it is a question mark anymore,” Wagner said. “But I think it is time for us to stop being another part of the defense and start being the central part of the defense, the standout part.”