Going into the 2015 Ivy League football season, I expected a few things: Penn would be better than its underachieving final year under Al Bagnoli. Bagnoli would lead Columbia to its first win in over two years.
And one more thing: That Dartmouth would win the Ivy League.
That’s right. A squad that hasn’t won an Ivy title in nearly two decades will wrestle the championship away from the nationally-ranked Harvard Crimson.
While Penn got more points than Dartmouth in the Football Championship Subdivision football rankings this week (gee, I wonder why…), the Big Green may have put together a more impressive victory, albeit not against No. 4 Villanova. Sacred Heart, Dartmouth's opponent in its home opener, marched into Memorial Field and promptly received a whooping to last a lifetime, falling 49-7.
The week before, the Big Green's defense shined in a 31-10 win over Georgetown on the road. FCS Preseason All-American Will McNamara, the captain and star linebacker of Dartmouth’s defense, took an interception to the end zone to help push the Hoyas down early.
But you don’t win the Ivy League in non-conference games against lesser opponents. Topping the Ancient Eight involves a grueling seven-game stretch that the Big Green haven’t yet conquered during coach Buddy Teevens' second stint at the helm.
The last few years, however, featured a Dartmouth squad on the cusp of glory. After spending much of the 2000s mired in the bottom half of the Ancient Eight, the Big Green have been a consistent threat since 2011. Teevens has overseen a renaissance in New Hampshire, leading the team to four straight over-.500 and top-three Ivy finishes. The only other school to match that feat over the same period is Harvard.
Dartmouth hasn’t just been also-rans during that time frame though; the team has been a legitimate contender, particularly since senior quarterback Dalyn Williams arrived on campus in 2012.
The last time Dartmouth came to Franklin Field, the Big Green were just a chip-shot field goal from upsetting the defending Ivy champion Quakers on the road. Unfortunately for Dartmouth, Penn blocked that field goal and came back to win the longest game in Ancient Eight history.
The Big Green would only suffer one more loss during the 2013 Ivy stretch, falling by just three points at Harvard while becoming the only team to beat a dominant Princeton squad that season. If one of Dartmouth’s two shots at a game-winning field goal had gone through the uprights, the Big Green likely would have claimed a share of that elusive Ivy title.
Last season, Dartmouth was the lone squad to beat Yale on the road, upsetting the Bulldogs in the 100th year of the Yale Bowl.
While Yale — tied for second in last year’s Ivy race — lost its star running back to graduation, both Harvard and Dartmouth have returned the core of each of their respective squads. And while the Crimson will still line up Paul Stanton Jr., Scott Hosch and Andrew Fischer on the offensive side, the Big Green have one of the few Ivy defenses that can actually hold that high-powered attack in check.
Led by McNamera, Dartmouth also has two senior All-Ivy selections returning in 2015 with defensive lineman A.J. Zuttah and the Ivy League’s 2014 leader in interceptions, Troy Donahue. All in all, the Big Green have held two weak opponents to just 8.5 points per game to start the year.
Dartmouth's defense is in many ways comparable to the defense against whom Penn’s offense put up 17 points last week against Villanova. But unlike the Wildcats, the Big Green won’t be missing their star quarterback in Williams nor either of his top receivers, seniors Ryan McManus and Viktor Williams.
I fully expect the Big Green to come to Franklin Field and avenge their 2013 defeat, just as they stomped out the Quakers’ Ivy hopes at a rain-soaked Memorial Field in 2014. And while Harvard will have few, if any, real tests before its Oct. 30 matchup with Dartmouth, the Big Green will be battle-tested, facing Penn and Yale before traveling up to Cambridge, Mass.
When the tale of the 2015 Ivy season is told, people will talk about Penn and Columbia beginning to rise. But they won’t be able to get far without talking about a senior-laden Dartmouth squad that is now ready for its moment in the sun.
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