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Penn wide receiver Justin Watson dominated with two touchdowns against Villanova.

Credit: Ilana Wurman , Ilana Wurman, Ilana Wurman

In case you haven’t heard, there will be a divine presence in Philadelphia this weekend.

And for Penn football, that holy visit might be just the good-luck charm it needs.

The Quakers (0-1), fresh off a disappointing 42-21 season-opening loss to Lehigh, will travel to take on No. 5 Villanova (2-1), a team they have not beaten since 1911.

The Penn-Wildcat rivalry has been one of the most lopsided in the sport — since the two teams resumed playing each other regularly in 1980, Villanova has won all 14 matchups. In last year’s iteration of the game, the Quakers were bludgeoned, 41-7, which was at the time the most lopsided loss of the Al Bagnoli era.

However, despite the ostensibly unbalanced matchup, first-year coach Ray Priore remains confident that his squad is poised to start firing on all cylinders following immense program-wide change last offseason.

“For a lot of these players, it’s their first time in the new system. For a lot of our coaches, it was their first time coaching these players,” Priore said. “What folks don’t realize is that was Lehigh’s third game, and it was our first game. So there were lots of first-game mistakes.”

And despite Saturday’s loss, two players on Penn’s offense stood out in particular: running back Tre Solomon and wide receiver Justin Watson. Solomon, fresh off a knee injury which ended his 2014 season, netted 120 all-purpose yards, while Watson hauled in 10 catches for 143 yards – 74 of which came on a long catch-and-run touchdown in the third quarter.

“It was awesome. You dream of that first game all offseason,” Watson said. “I was just trying to go out there and make a play and earn my teammates’ trust any way I could.”

“It was great to see all the young players, especially those key guys, step out in their first game,” Priore added. “They were really shining stars out there.”

The Quakers also got a bit of grim luck this week when it was announced that Villanova star fifth-year quarterback John Robertson will be out for the rest of the season with a torn posterior cruciate ligament. Robertson injured the knee during Saturday’s 28-21 win over Delaware.

Robertson’s absence will be a major setback for the Wildcats — a year ago, the New Jersey native threw for 35 touchdowns and ran for 11 more en route to the Walter Payton Award, given annually to the nation’s best Football Championship Subdivision player. Villanova does, however, have a suitable backup in redshirt freshman Zach Bednarczyk, who accounted for two touchdowns and sparked the team to victory after replacing Robertson in the fourth quarter of last week’s game.

Thursday’s contest will also feature the unusual quirk of being played midweek. Originally scheduled for Saturday, the game was moved up to accommodate the papal visit.

Despite the short week and non-conference nature of the game, Priore has no plans to rest starters or give anything less than 100 percent.

“The idea when you play anybody is to go out there and give ourselves the best opportunity to win the game,” Priore said. “Schematically, how to go about attacking someone on a short week, we thought about that long and hard over the summertime. ... We practiced Sunday, which we normally don’t do, we practiced Monday, which we normally don’t do.”

Watson is similarly confident in the team’s approach to the shortened week.

“When it’s a Thursday night, and the lights are on, and it’s Villanova, you kind of forget about the short week,” Watson said. “If anything, it’s a little tough on the mental side. ... But we’re smart guys, we’re Penn students.”

If the past is prelude, the Quakers don’t have much of a chance on Thursday. But, in context, Penn’s odds look a little brighter: two young stars, fresh off breakout games, will lead the Red and Blue against a weary rival that just lost its best player.

Add in a little divine intervention, and anything could happen.

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