Last year, Dartmouth football came to University City and put the Ivy League on notice. They trounced the Quakers, 42-20, on the backs of standout performances from quarterback Dalyn Williams and wide receiver Victor Williams.
Then-junior quarterback Alek Torgersen went down in the first half, forcing Andrew Lisa to step in after the Red and Blue had dug themselves into a 27-6 hole. It was a confluence of events that left the Quakers on the short end of things.
Across the Ancient Eight, the punditocracy — even on Penn’s campus — felt that that the Ivy title was the Big Green’s to lose. They were half right. Or, more accurately, one-third right.
Yes, Dartmouth went on to take the title, sharing it with Penn and Harvard after going 6-1 in conference play. But fast forward to this year.
The Big Green (2-0) lost almost the entirety of their starting lineup, while all of the Quakers’ weapons have returned. In an apparent reversal of expectations, it has been the Hanoverians that have jumped out quick in the beginning of the season, while the Red and Blue are mired in a winless start.
But that ignores the reality of scheduling.
For Penn, opening the year against Lehigh and Fordham is a purposeful test. The Mountain Hawks make a ritual of running through Ivy opponents in their non-conference slate and the Rams boast one of the FCS’ preeminent athletes in star running back Chase Edmonds.
Both represent opportunities to size up the state of the program headed into all-important Ivy play.
“I don’t think we’ve shown our best colors these first two games. We have a lot left in us,” senior captain Nick Demes said. “Going back at the film for the last two games you can see those little instances where if we just did one more thing we were coached, the game could have been totally different. On the swing of it, one thing could have changed the game entirely.”
Dartmouth has elected to begin with New Hampshire and Holy Cross. The Big Green needed a late comeback to win their opener, 22-21, before beating out a 1-3 Holy Cross squad. Solid wins, not awe-inspiring.
But as long as the Ivy League maintains its ban on postseason play, the non-conference record is irrelevant. That leaves teams with two options: Schedule some easy wins early to boost confidence, or test yourself from the get-go and take your lumps early for the sake of growth.
“We’re really hungry to get this first win. We’re definitely hungry to get this first win in the Ivy League,” sophomore corner Mason Williams said. “So it really doesn’t matter who we’re playing, we’re going to prepare as hard as we can to get a ‘W.’”
Penn and Dartmouth have chosen differently, and this weekend will provide insight into the success of each method.
In this clash of philosophies, the nation’s eyes will turn to Hanover. For the first of three times this year, Penn will be playing in a Friday night game on NBC Sports Network.
“You get that little extra edge, that little extra 10 percent of excitement for a night game under the lights,” Demes said. “It takes you back to the high school days, makes it that much more fun.”
Though the Quakers take the field on short rest, it’s not a novel situation for them. Last year, they were featured in the same program, beating Yale at home, 34-20.
“I think you end up doing a little less, and less a lot of times is better,” said Penn coach Ray Priore, reflecting on the compressed week. “Focus on the little things there, don’t dream up so many different plays, just find what we do, and do it well.”
This season will not be defined by Friday night, but a statement will certainly be made. While this is not Penn’s first test of the year, it’s the first one that’s graded.
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