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Penn vs. Villanova Football Credit: Tonjanika Smith , Tonjanika Smith

30 carries. 20 yards.

That was all that Penn could do against a Villanova defense that has given up more than 100 yards per game last season as well as the first three games of the Wildcats’ 2013 slate before ?taking on the Quakers on Saturday night.

“I think Penn’s O-line had a struggle today,” Villanova coach Andy Talley said. “They have good backs and they want to run the ball.

“I just think our D-line played a little better than their O-line today.”

While on paper that’s the logical conclusion after watching the Wildcats demolish the Quakers, it’s not simply about the O-line or the running backs themselves. It’s more complicated than that.

For a team that has to win ugly, what with a quarterback that is at his best when he isn’t asked to throw the ball downfield a ton, Penn’s rushing troubles should worry the coaching staff heading into its first Ivy contest against Dartmouth next week.

Yes, Villanova is a very good, scholarship school, so a lot of what went wrong in the 35-6 loss can be forgiven.

Namely, the three combined interceptions thrown by seniors Ryan Becker and Billy Ragone, junior Connor Loftus’ blocked field goal and the missed tackles by the defense are all things that either were chance occurrences or that probably won’t happen against Ivy League teams.

That’s not to say that those aspects of Penn’s game weren’t ugly. Trust me, they were. But they all pale in comparison to what happened to Penn’s running game.

After last weekend, it was fair to say that the Quakers’ run game would be a strength despite the losses of Jeff Jack and Lyle Marsh.

Now, it’s a question mark. And that’s not because this group of backs and this offensive line isn’t talented.

Rather, what happened tonight was a breakdown that could have been avoided, which is cause for even more concern.

After last year’s playoff loss to Stony Brook, Villanova decided to install a four down-linemen set into its defense, moving away from its traditional 3-3 stack. That change has helped Villanova over the course of the season and it did again on Saturday night.

The issue is that Bagnoli and his coaching staff weren’t prepared to see it for the entire game.

“They’ve been going a little more to a four-man line,” Penn’s coach Bagnoli said. “I just didn’t expect to see them the whole game go with a four-man line … We had trouble blocking the second level and we had trouble sealing the end guys.”

What this reveals about Penn isn’t ultimately about the running game, but about the offense on the whole and what it is capable of.

Last year against Villanova, Penn managed to rush for 158 yards on 4.4 yards per carry.

Thus, tonight wasn’t simply another showcase of a scholarship school using its local Ivy League opponent to get an easy win.

Bagnoli said that it wasn’t about effect, but execution.

And he’s right. But the most important piece of execution is in the gameplan itself, most importantly being able to adapt to changing circumstances. Field goals will be blocked, red zone opportunities will be lost, but Penn could have realized that the four-man front wasn’t going away.

This whole week, people have wondered why Penn continues to play Villanova, believing that it is a one-sided rivalry due to the physicality the Wildcats bring.

But tonight wasn’t about the Wildcats’ physical nature.

It was either about Bagnoli admitting he doesn’t trust Ragone enough to win this game with his arm despite knowing that his O-line may have difficulty with Villanova’s revamped defense, or it was Talley simply outsmarting Penn.

It’s unclear which possibility is worse.


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