Are you ready for some football?
After unexpectedly posting a 7-3 record and cruising to an Ivy League title a season ago, Penn football will kick off its 2016 season Saturday, when it hosts Lehigh at Franklin Field.
The matchup represented an inauspicious opening act to the Quakers’ season last year. The Mountain Hawks (0-2) scored early and often in a 42-21 win, Penn’s sixth straight loss to a non-conference opponent.
“It was really tough, to come out and get blown out last year,” said junior receiver Justin Watson, who tallied then-career highs with 10 catches for 143 yards in the loss. “It was nice to experience a little personal success, but [this year] I’d like the team to experience something similar.”
While the Alek Torgersen-to-Watson combination will be alive and well for another year, the Quaker offense will be playing for the first time without its two tight ends from a season ago: graduated stars Ryan O’Malley and Ryan Kelly. The duo combined for seven touchdowns in 2015, and O’Malley is now in the NFL as a member of the Oakland Raiders’ practice squad.
“Coming in, that might be our biggest position of loss,” coach Ray Priore said. “But we have some young guys: [junior] Nick Bokun, who had some limited experience last year, and Logan Sharp, a sophomore who’s had a good camp.”
“I know [Bokun] is going to come out and give 100 percent, catch every ball and make some great blocks,” Watson added.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Red and Blue will be forced with containing Lehigh’s star senior quarterback Nick Shafnisky, who shredded the Quakers in last year’s matchup to the tune of 345 total yards and five touchdowns.
“What he’s really dangerous at ... is his ability to not only beat you with his arm, but his ability to scramble,” Priore said, comparing Shafnisky’s mobility to that of former Penn quarterback Billy Ragone. “Our defense has been preparing for this game for a while now.”
Saturday’s contest will be the first game under the captaincy of seniors Cam Countryman, Nick Demes and Donald Panciello, who were voted to the role in August. The contest will carry particular weight for Demes, an offensive lineman who will be going face-to-face — quite literally — with his high school teammate and “best friend,” Lehigh defensive lineman Jimmy Mitchell. Mitchell is also the brother of Ryan Mitchell, a former tight end for the Quakers who graduated in 2014.
“We decided on where we were going to college at about the same time,” Demes said. “When we saw the schedule come out before junior year, it was pretty exciting. It’s going to be nice to get a [second] chance to play against him.”
Mitchell had a decent performance in the first matchup between the two, picking up a sack, though that was his only tackle of the game.
“We trained together and we’ve generally been supportive of each other, but when we get out on the field we’re definitely going to be competitors,” Demes said, laughing.
A year ago, Priore acknowledged that the team was playing at a bit of a disadvantage considering Lehigh had already played two games prior to the matchup, Penn’s first of the season. While the same will be the case in 2016, the second-year coach believes they will be confident and prepared Saturday in a way they weren’t a year ago.
“There are advantages and disadvantages to it being the first game of the year. ... If we can keep things in check in that first quarter, survive that first bit of jitters, I think we’ll fare well.”
At this time a year ago, things were a lot different for Penn football. Coming off of a 2-8 season and the unretirement of Al Bagnoli, the Red and Blue were looking for little more than tangible improvement. Instead, they got a conference title.
Now, it’s time to prove that it wasn’t a fluke.
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