During its back-to-back Ivy League title campaigns, Penn football had an answer for nearly every opponent in its path. But the Quakers couldn't solve the Lehigh Mountain Hawks.
On Saturday, the two squads will face off again with redemption on the line for the Red and Blue against the defending Patriot League champions.
In both 2015 and 2016, the Quakers opened their season against Lehigh, and both times they were overmatched by the Mountain Hawks' high-powered offense.
Those uncharacteristic letdowns by the Penn defense could have been attributed to Lehigh having two games under their belts whereas Penn was just beginning its campaign.
“It’s better that we’ve got a game under our belt now,” junior defensive back Sam Philippi noted. “They’ve still played more games than us but that’s not an excuse for us, we’re just trying to focus what we do.”
This season, with a win over Ohio Dominican already in hand, the Quakers hope to come roaring out of the gate in Bethlehem on Saturday.
“It gives us that little sense of maturity,” coach Ray Priore explained. “We got all that rust off [by] playing the game: situations, timing in the pocket, things that you can’t simulate during a practice scenario.”
One player who should especially benefit from having a start behind him this weekend is senior quarterback Will Fischer-Colbrie.
The first-year starter had a solid finish after a shaky start in his debut last week. He threw for 198 yards with two touchdowns and one interception.
Per the gameplan, Fischer-Colbrie sat out the first drive of the second quarter to let sophomore Nick Robinson get a few reps in.
“I thought it gave Will an opportunity to gain a little composure, watch the game from the sidelines and really see the speed of what was happening,” Priore said.
Senior receiver Justin Watson noticed that Fischer-Colbrie has adjusted well to his new role.
“He’s coming in with a lot of confidence this week,” Watson said. “It was great to see him come on in the second half and we’re just going to keep building on that this week.”
A big part of that confidence surely stems from knowing that he has Watson to throw the ball to. But Watson will not be the only All-American wideout on the field this weekend. Lehigh sports an accomplished playmaker of its own in senior wide receiver Troy Pelletier.
“Their guy is really talented,” Priore added. “Justin is really talented. Now it’s who can make the most of the opportunities when they get them on the field.”
Last season Pelletier made the most of every opportunity he had as he burned the Quakers for 123 yards and a touchdown. But Philippi is hopeful that that experience, as well as covering Watson every day in practice, will help the Penn defense match up with Pelletier.
“We go against our #5 and then we’re going to be facing their #3 on Saturday,” Philippi said.
“They’re both great players. They’re both amazing athletes. They’re kids that are probably going to be in the NFL soon and it’s definitely an advantage being able to go against J-Wat every day and it prepares us for him.”
Priore, however, will not be basing the gameplan around limiting Pelletier.
“I think in our game this weekend, like any game, I think we got to stop a couple things. One is we have to establish the run game and on defense we have to stop the run,” Priore explained.
“If we stop them and force them to pass it then we can zero in and focus on the passing game. If we can establish the run game, that will open up opportunities for Justin in the pass game.”
Ultimately, the matchup will likely be a back-and-forth affair, as it was for the first thirty minutes last season. However, this time around Penn will look to make the big stops and connect on key plays.
“They get what we give them,” Priore said. “So ball containment, controlling the football on offense will be important. And I think the last two years [a key] has been third downs. They’ve converted big third downs both two years ago and last year.”
As to whether there will be anything extra at stake this weekend, Watson isn’t looking too much into that narrative.
“We treat every game like we want to win it,” the captain stated. “Our goal every season is 10-0 and that starts with being 1-0 every week. We hate to lose and that’s what makes a great team.”
Unlike the last two years, Penn is 1-0 after week one. On Saturday, the Quakers will look to keep their goal of perfection alive in hostile territory.
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