Two of simplest words in American football are the cornerstone of pickup games played during recess and on sandlots across the country.
But, perhaps no other two words in the entire sport carry as much weight as that illustrious phrase. To junior wideout Justin Watson, they represent the best play in the book.
“You run the route, and you never know if you’re gonna get it,” Watson explains. “And that first moment when you see the ball’s in the air. That’s such a cool feeling.”
Time stands still for a moment.
“You hear everyone kind of holding their breath when it’s in the air and the crowd erupts and everyone else starts running down to you,” Watson says with a smile.
For him, the feeling is familiar. Despite possessing a swiss army knife of offensive attributes, Watson’s favorite moments are when he streaks down the sideline, in pursuit of a deep ball.
Senior quarterback Alek Torgersen delivered plenty of those throws to Watson during their championship campaign last season. Back for a final year together, the duo is poised to keep connecting. On the field, Penn football will go as far as Torgersen and Watson can take them.
Twelve months ago, the Quakers were surrounded by questions. With a new coach, a new offense and a 2-8 season fresh in their rearview mirror, expectations weren’t high for the former Ivy League power.
In their season opener, the Red and Blue fell flat, getting smoked 42-21 at Lehigh. And while days later they knocked off fifth-ranked Villanova, among the largest upsets in program history, it wasn’t until week five that the Quakers truly hit their stride.
Fresh after missing a game due to a concussion, Torgersen ignited the offense against an inferior Columbia squad. He passed for 270 yards and three touchdowns in a dominant win that would begin a relentless streak for the veteran quarterback and consequently, the team.
The Quakers would go on to win their final six games behind an offense that consistently relied on big performances from Torgersen and Watson, who kept improving as the season went on and as the offense became more familiar.
That combination of personal and team progress is what second-year head coach Ray Priore hopes to continue to foster this season.
“We have to grow as individuals, but we have to build ourselves as a team,” he explained.
One area in which Torgersen has grown this offseason is his knowledge of the playbook and ability to adjust on the fly.
“He is able to call the offense himself,” Priore said. “Knows how to check calls, anticipating things.”
Fifth-year receiver Cam Countryman, who has had a front row seat to Torgersen’s development, went into more depth to describe the quarterback’s ascension.
“We’re focusing on allowing Alek to just take over the offense,” he said. “I think that he’s gaining the ability to be able to see what’s out there, see what the defense is trying to do and get us always in the right position.”
Torgersen has become increasingly autonomous and gained the trust of Priore and offensive coordinator John Reagan to make the changes on his own that last year were called in from the sidelines.
“It’s like we have an offensive coordinator up top but he’s that next guy,” Countryman went on to say. “He’s running the offense, taking over and it’s awesome seeing him being able to be in control at all time.”
His increased knowledge is especially key to help show others the way.
“His leadership has been tremendous,” Priore says. “Teaching young quarterbacks and young receivers the scheme within it.”
Last season, Torgersen was new to the offense just like everyone else, but now he’s an expert.
“When you’re learning it for the first time, you’re just worried about yourself. You can’t really go out there and help anybody else,” Priore aded.
Another advantage to working in a second-year offense has been Watson and Torgersen’s ability to work on plays together for the entire offseason.
Having both earned first team All-Ivy selections in 2015 and with a league title under their belts, it would have been easy for Watson and Torgersen to be complacent with their development. But they want more.
“We keep talking about how we’re still not trying to defend a title,” Watson said. “It’s the same goal as last year: We’re trying to go out and win a title. And this year we’re trying to be outright.”
“One third was great,” he added. “But you know we want the whole thing this year.”
Torgersen has the same mindset entering his final season in west Philadelphia.
“We still have kind of a chip on our shoulder,” he stated. “Three-way tie, two other teams besides us got a championship last year so we haven’t done anything, this group hasn’t accomplished anything yet.”
Separating from Harvard, Dartmouth and the rest of the conference will be tough. For Torgersen and Watson the first steps towards another championship began after finals ended in May.
This summer, the pair stayed on-campus. They worked at the same firm in center city, commuted, ate lunch and lifted together before hitting Franklin Field for throwing sessions every day.
They practiced timing, back shoulder fades and most importantly, option routes, where Watson will change his path based off the coverage, keeping faith that Torgersen sees the same alignment and will anticipate Watson’s adjustment accurately.
“A lot of college quarterbacks and their receivers can’t have that type of chemistry,” Watson explained. “But I think us just being here all summer we’re kind of on the same page that if I’m running the route I’m supposed to be running and it’s not gonna be open he knows I’m gonna settle down into the open window and we’re gonna find it.”
What makes those windows easier to find, and more lethal when exposed, are both players’ raw talent.
Throughout August, as national watch lists came out, Torgersen was being labeled as one of the top passers in the FCS. Not to be outdone, Watson has been in the discussion for best player overall. Few teams, especially any in the Ivy league, can boast two such players on their roster.
“Justin’s a stud, makes my life a lot easier,” Torgersen bluntly declared.
“I expect him to make those crazy one-handed grabs. I expect him to catch every ball I throw to him and, when he doesn’t, I get disappointed. Nothing surprises me at this point.”
Countryman piled on the praise for Watson as well.
“J-Wat is one of the best receivers — I think he’s the best receiver in FCS football, to be completely honest. So just being able to see what kind of talent he has whether it’s being a possession receiver or being a deep threat, cuz he’s both, you notice that.”
Opposing defenses are starting to notice him too, keeping the pressure on both him to keep improving and on the Red and Blue to find new ways to utilize his skills.
“This offense allows our best playmakers to be put in space and make plays,” Countryman says.
Against Harvard in November, with an Ivy League title on the line, Watson’s versatility was on full display and the offense set him free to do damage.
Up 28-25 in the fourth quarter against the defending champions, having already scored on a 68-yard passing play earlier in the afternoon, Watson broke off for a 79-yard rushing touchdown to put the Quakers up for good.
Performances like that one are what make Priore and Torgersen smile, and are what keep defensive backs up at night. As a result the opposition will be glued to Watson. He knows that and it doesn’t faze him.
“If I gotta take two or three guys every game we’ll be 10-0 because I know everyone else is gonna be making plays,” Watson said.
But, Watson doesn’t merely rely on natural abilities to separate himself from the pack.
“He’s the hardest working kid on the field, day in and day out,” Torgesen said.
“It really helps with the whole vibe and how everything goes at practice because when he’s performing the whole offense is performing,” Torgersen continued. “He’s a natural leader.”
That work-ethic and leadership is most evident when Watson discuses his personal accomplishments. He was a finalist for Ivy offensive player of the year in 2015 among other awards and accolades.
“For me, it’s more about the ring,” Watson said. “It’s a great honor and my mom and dad are really excited so it’s good for them but for me I’m gonna go out and keep doing the same thing and just keeping taking it one step at a time. That’s how I got to this point so I’m not gonna change anything.”
Watson and Torgersen have one more chance to see what they can accomplish together. Unlike last season, they won’t be surprising anyone on the field this year. But, in a familiar offense and with a summer of work under their belts, even greater things could be in store for them and the rest of the Red and Blue.
Perhaps, at some point this year Torgersen will look across the huddle at Watson and say two words, “Go long.”
At that point the playbook won’t matter, Watson will sprint ahead, Torgersen will drop back, and the fate of the game will lie in the balance of that long arching throw.
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