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Penn’s No. 1 Ivy defense from a year ago lost six players with significant starting experience, including three-fourths of its secondary.

But entering the 2009 season, the unit still has loads of talent. Whether it maintains last year’s fourth-ranked scoring defense in the Football Championship Subdivision depends largely on the following questions:

1. How badly will the pass rush miss Drew Goldsmith?

Last year the Quakers had a pedestrian 1.7 sacks per game, which was 77th in the FCS. Goldsmith led the team as a junior with four of the team’s 17 sacks. Unfortunately for Penn, Goldsmith will miss the entire 2009 season due to a lower body injury.

Of the team’s remaining 14 sacks last year, nine were registered by departed seniors. That leaves seniors Jake Lewko (two sacks), Joe Goniprow (two) and Kevin Gray (one) as the only active Quakers to register a sack last year. The defense’s performance will be based largely on whether the retooled squad puts enough pressure on opposing quarterbacks.

2. Can Lewko break 100 tackles?

Last year the big question on defense was who would replace All-Ivy standout Joe Anastasio and his 192 career tackles. Lewko answered the call as a junior, leading the Quakers with 71 tackles, including 6.5 for a loss.

The Quakers have had at least one 100-tackle defender in 18 of the 32 years since Penn started keeping track of season-by-season tackle leaders in 1977. However, outside of Anastasio’s 102 in 2006, zero Quakers have accomplished that feat since 1997.

While Lewko certainly has the ability and stamina to reach the plateau — he’s played in all 10 games in each of the last two years — perhaps it won’t even matter if he breaks the century mark: of coach Al Bagnoli’s six Ivy champions, only the 1994 team had a player register 100 tackles.

3. Will cornerback Chris Wynn break the program’s record of 14 interceptions?

The senior captain had five interceptions in each of the last two seasons after registering zero in limited action during his freshman campaign. (Last year his five led the league; two years ago it was third.) That puts him — coincidentally — just another five from breaking the Penn career record. Currently Tim Chambers and program legend Chuck Bednarik share the record.

Clearly Wynn has the talent to get five picks (again). But will he even get a chance? As Jonathan Moore, the other projected starting cornerback, said last week, “Teams are going to be weary of throwing to him.”

That said, as the four most prolific Ivy quarterbacks from last year have graduated, new signal callers might just make the mistake of throwing to Wynn.

4. Can the defense hold opponents under 1,000 rushing yards again?

Last year Penn was ranked ninth in the FCS with just 90.7 rushing yards allowed per game.

Although Goniprow led the team with 10 tackles for a loss, departed seniors Jordan Manning, Tyson Maugle and Britton Ertman — ironically all from the secondary — had a combined 17 tackles for a loss last year. Add in the loss of linebacker Jay Colabella (four tackles for a loss), and former backups are going to have to step up as starters.

That’s especially true with eight of last year’s top 10 Ancient Eight rushers returning. The biggest league game for the rush ‘D’ will be the Nov. 7 homecoming date with Princeton. The Tigers return Jordan Culbreath, who led the Ivy League both in rushing (1,206 yards) and in rushing touchdowns (10) last year as a junior. He’ll be gunning for Penn, since it held him to a season-low 57 yards on the ground in last year’s win.

5. Will the defense determine who wins?

Last year there was a very simple formula for the Quakers: If the defense gave up 10 points or fewer, the team won. When it gave up 20 or more, Penn lost.

As a result, the Quakers never won a high-scoring game nor lost a low-scoring game. However, since all four losses were by seven or fewer points, the team went just 3-4 in games decided by a possession or less.

It remains to be seen whether Penn can improve on winning tight games, even if the defense plays poorly.

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