Every now and then when football coaches pore through opponent game tape, one play among the hundreds makes eyes pop.
As the Penn staff dissected film of Yale quarterback Patrick Witt this week, that was likely a common occurrence.
“I’m not sure there’s a ball that he doesn’t throw well,” defensive coordinator Ray Priore gushed.
Witt, a 2009 transfer from Nebraska, is the type of player that causes gray hair and lost sleep. Saturday at Franklin Field, Penn (3-2, 2-0 Ivy) will grapple with the unenviable task of defending the Bulldogs’ signal caller and NFL prospect.
Even though the Quakers contained Witt last season at Yale (3-2, 2-0) — sacking and intercepting him twice each — the tape from the game still revealed what makes him one of the Ivy League’s biggest weapons.
One play in particular immediately jumped out in Priore’s mind.
“We were playing Cover-2 and they ran some vertical routes,” he described. “The coverage was very, very good, and he was able to thread the needle on a fade ball.”
It’s those types of throws that had his rivals singing his praises at mid-week practices heading into game day.
“There’s not many teams in this league that throw deep comebacks across the field, just because not many quarterbacks can,” head coach Al Bagnoli said.
“He makes that team go,” linebacker Erik Rask echoed. “He’s got a great arm.”
Yale coaches have molded their team around that great arm, joining a host of top programs around the nation in running the ever-popular spread offense. The up-tempo scheme, which Rask called a “pro-style offense,” forces defenses to guard as many as five receivers on a given play.
Trigger men like Witt are a rare breed that has the skill set to orchestrate the attack-from-all-angles passing game.
“You have to defend the entire width and length of the field [against Yale], which makes it a little problematic for your secondary,” Bagnoli said.
Especially for one like Penn’s, which has allowed touchdown passes of 73, 55, 54, 44, 37 and 28 yards already this season.
But for the 6-foot-4, 230-pound Witt, the results have not matched the physical tools thus far in 2011. After leading the league in most passing categories last season, he has thrown nine touchdowns compared to seven interceptions.
The Quakers’ game plan will focus on disrupting the Bulldogs’ timing.
“We’ve got to do our best to get some pressure on him,” Rask said. “I think that’s the main issue — trying not to let [Witt] get comfortable back there in the pocket.”
“He does a very good job of reading coverages,” Priore added, “so you don’t want to give him the same look or coverage on every snap.”
Of course, Yale’s success extends beyond Witt. Bagnoli was quick to point out that the Bulldogs are “a very complete football team” that can also run the ball effectively with senior Alex Thomas and play stout defense.
For that reason, Penn will look to use the same winning formula it used a year ago, when the undefeated Quakers handed the Elis their first Ivy loss, 27-20. That day, the Red and Blue built a 20-3 lead by shutting down the Yale ground attack, forcing Witt into obvious passing situations. Even the best quarterbacks can’t win by chucking it up 54 times.
“We like our chances if we do that,” Rask said.