BETHLEHEM, Pa. -- Gavin Hoffman, who completed 36-of-52 passes for 356 yards against Lehigh, did something on Saturday he seemed incapable of last season: exceeding expectations. Hoffman, a high school All-American who announced his surprise transfer from Northwestern to Penn prior to the start of last season, and who had already shown that he could throw for 2,000 yards against the Ivy-dwarfing defenses of the Big 10, was disappointingly underwhelming in 1999. He was simply an above-average Ivy League passer when he was expected to be other-worldly. After all, he was the "transfer from God," as dubbed by Penn coach Al Bagnoli in the '99 preseason. At 6'5", 235 pounds, he had the size and the arm strength -- and he came close to breaking just about every single-season or single-game Penn passing record in the book last year. But as the defending Ivy champ Quakers dropped to fourth in the league, the much-scrutinized sophomore seemed to miss the mark on clutch passes. He lacked mobility, at times getting outplayed by the opposing quarterback, be it Brown's James Perry or Yale's Joe Walland. The transfer from God seemed at times more like a transfer from Dartmouth. Saturday, Penn lost its season-opener to Lehigh, 17-10. But it was no fault of Hoffman's, who was as consistent, as effortless and as accurate as he's ever been in a Penn uniform. So, here's a tip of the hat to new Penn offensive coordinator Andy Coen. Because while Hoffman's effectiveness was obvious, the behind the scenes work of Coen is due equal thanks for keeping Penn in the game when few predicted the Quakers would have a chance. After all, Penn was without injured running back Kris Ryan, unquestionably the top back in the Ivy League. Furthermore, Lehigh was a team that already had a game under its belt, a team that had won 23 of its last 24 regular season games, a team that abused three Ivy opponents in '99 by a combined score of 164-27. And for good pre-game measure, throw in the fact that Lehigh would know just what to expect from Penn's offense -- not merely because Ryan's absence would make the passing game all the more obvious, but because Coen was the mastermind behind the Engineers' potent offense, serving as offensive coordinator in Bethlehem from 1996 until last year. Up in the press box, it certainly didn't sound like Coen was having a red letter day. Isolated from the media in an adjoining booth, with a curtain drawn over the dividing wall's window, Coen was out of sight and out of mind -- almost. A handful of times, like a hidden lab rat periodically zapped in some Psych 001 experiment, Coen would let out a sudden scream, followed by a vocal peppering of unprintables that even the dividing wall couldn't muffle. Certainly, Coen was his own harshest critic. Because after the game, Penn's offense received glowing praise from both sides of the field. OThey're going to throw the ball well against many people this year, because of the quarterback and because of the offense that they're running," Lehigh coach Kevin Higgins said. "It's an excellent offense, especially when you have talented people like Penn has. "I thought Andy [Coen] did an excellent job play-calling, using various personnel groups and formations, and [he] attacked some weaknesses he saw in us." And Hoffman, who kept his emotions to himself last year, seemed to actually enjoy playing in the game. He used the phrase "fun to play in" to describe the Coen system, with lots of quick passes, particularly on first down, and the option to hit a wide arsenal of receivers -- Hoffman hooked up with nine different targets. "I thought we had a good package," Hoffman said. "I felt like I was getting in a groove out there, so I was happy I was able to spread it around." And that's high praise coming from a quarterback who knows his offenses. Hoffman's seen enough different systems in his well-traveled career that, Wharton degree aside, he could always fall back on a career as an offensive coordinator. "This is actually my fifth offensive system, so I feel like I'm pretty versed in college offenses," Hoffman said. "It's gotten easier every time to learn a new offense." Hoffman found it particularly easy to connect with a veteran trio of receivers. Junior wideout Rob Milanese set a Penn single-game record with 13 receptions. Senior captain Doug O'Neill, who missed all of last season with a knee injury, snared five passes for 77 yards from the flanker spot. And senior Ben Zagorski, who caught 26 passes last season in platoon duty at tight end, seems to have grown into his 6'7", 245-pound frame, drawing rave reviews from opposing coach Higgins while hauling in five passes. He used his size to churn out 74 yards and snared Hoffman's lone touchdown pass, leaping into the air while Lehigh safety Abdul Byron desperately hung on. While Penn lost, the post-game air was one of anything but desperation. The Quakers, obviously still undefeated in the Ivy League, gained valuable experience. They hung in against a heavy favorite. The passing game clicked in ways it never did last season. And Kris Ryan's return, and with it a balanced attack, is just around the corner. But most importantly, Hoffman -- whose next pass in '99 always seemed to be a question mark -- was steady, collected and on the mark. And he seemed to be enjoying himself. "I felt like I had a lot of answers out there, and I could see how when the receivers and quarterback are on the same page, we're going to move the ball on a lot of people," he said. "[Coen's system] is a fun one to play in, and I'm really excited about it."Comments powered by Disqus
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