Time for Penn football's special teams to get a leg up
The Quakers' special teams have been inconsistent and need to gain their footing heading into a tough Ivy stretch
October 22, 2013, 7:57 pm · Updated October 22, 2013, 8:48 pm·
Carolyn Lim | DP
At the halfway point of the Penn football season, there are plenty of positive takeaways from the team’s first five games of 2013.
The Quakers are undefeated in the Ivy League, and the squad has undoubtedly been led by the defensive front seven. Despite injuries on both sides of the ball, the Red and Blue have won the games that mattered and are building up momentum.
After a nonconference victory over Lafayette and two wins over inferior Ivy opponents, Penn’s special teams have been a cause for concern.
“Inconsistent, I think, would be the best word to describe the special teams,” Bagnoli said. “There are some things we’ve done very well, we’ve had very good kick coverage, at times we’ve had very good kickoff returns, but we just haven’t been consistent.”
In the season opening victory over Lafayette, senior kicker Connor Loftus missed two field goals, including one from only 34 yards out.
The following week against Villanova, Loftus had a 37-yard field goal attempt blocked and returned for a touchdown, effectively killing any chance the Quakers had of beating their cross-town rival. The veteran also missed a PAT for the first time since 2011.
It hasn’t gotten much better since for the Quakers’ kicking game. Loftus missed two more field goals from inside 40 yards against Columbia on Saturday — both to the left — and has only converted on three of his nine attempts on the season.
But a fix could be on the horizon.
“I think Connor is hitting the ball solid, but he’s hitting the ball where his hips are facing,” Bagnoli said. “We need to have him concentrate on getting his hips square and getting his mechanics fixed.”
“I’ve been working really hard to get back on track, doing a lot of extra reps in practice,” Loftus added. “The snapper and holder have been doing a great job all year, so this is on me right now.”
Similarly, Penn has to be worried about the state of its punting game after five games. With the graduation of Scott Lopano, the school’s all-time leader in punts and punting yards, the coaching staff knew it would be quite a challenge to replace the three-time All-Ivy punter.
It’s unlikely, however, that the Quakers imagined the transition being this difficult.
Sophomore Max Kurucar has handled the bulk of the punting duties for Penn throughout its first five games. On 26 punts, Kurucar is averaging only 37.7 yards per attempt, with only eight of his kicks landing inside the 20 yard line.
But according to Bagnoli, numbers don’t tell the whole story with Kurucar. Bagnoli acknowledges that the offense has put the punting game in a tough spot, and that he expects the issues to be resolved over the next few games.
On the bright side, Penn ranks third in the Ivy League in kickoff coverage, and the punting game has made improvements since an opening night disaster against the Leopards.
As the season progresses, special teams will play an even more important role for the defending Ivy champs. With Yale, Brown and Harvard on tap, the margin for error is too small for Penn to continue to be inconsistent on special teams.
Yet the Red and Blue have already had one game this season saved because of a big special teams play, and it likely won’t be the last.
When David Park blocked Dartmouth’s Riley Lyons’ 21-yard field goal in a tie game at the end of regulation three weeks ago, it was by far the most important play of Penn’s season thus far.
Moving forward, it seems as if Loftus’ mindset sums up the Quakers’ special teams pretty well.
“I’m still confident, that’s the way I have to [be] about it,” Loftus said. “I don’t remember anything that happens in any game beforehand, either good or bad.
“If I dwell on those things, then I won’t be able to succeed. It’s all about the next kick, and every kick is a new kick. That’s the mindset we as a team need to have.”