It’s tough for a defender to make a tackle while on the ground. Unfortunately for Penn football’s opponents, they have found themselves in that position often this season.
The Red and Blue (5-3, 4-1 Ivy) will enter Friday night’s primetime, nationally-televised showdown against Harvard with a comfortable conference lead in yards per carry at 4.7, followed by Yale at 4.1. They have the second-best yards per passing attempt and rank near the top of the Ancient Eight in both third- and fourth-down conversion rates.
Paving the way and enabling Penn’s firepower is the offensive line. Offensive line coach Joe Johnson, in his first year with the team, inherited a unit that saw three starters graduate, including first team All-Ivy selection Tanner Thexton. Stalwarts Nick Demes and Dan Poulos remained — with Demes switching from right to left tackle — and greeted incoming starters senior Nick Whitton, junior Nate Kirchmier and sophomore Tommy Dennis. According to Demes, it has been a smooth transition.
“I’ve been in the meeting rooms with Nate for three years and Tommy for two years, so it’s not like there are only five guys who ever talk or work together,” Demes said. “Obviously I miss those guys but these guys have absolutely picked it up very well.”
The offensive line’s success has hinged on its physicality, and as Demes says, they aim to be the most physical team in the Ancient Eight for all four quarters. While the linemen want to advance the ball, they also want to see each of their men land on the ground in the process.
“As an O-Line, we pride ourselves on knockdowns,” Kirchmier said. “That’s something I like doing specifically and feel like going in every day, play as tough and mean as possible.”
Kirchmier, who lassoed a strong showing in the spring into the starting center job, has the advantage — or annoyance — of playing the same position as his coach, Johnson, who graduated from North Texas in 2011 after four years with the team. Playing center comes with extra attention, wanted or not.
“I pick on him more than anyone because that’s what I played. The ins-and-outs of center is my craft and what I know best,” Johnson said. “He probably hates that I’m on him all the time but he’s doing a hell of a job, really picking it up well and having a great season.”
Junior running back Tre Solomon and junior wide receiver Justin Watson excel at breaking tackles and powering past defenders en route to commanding conference leads in rushing and receiving yards, respectively, but perhaps not to the extent of senior quarterback Alek Torgersen.
With 96 carries for 356 yards, Torgersen has continued to make plays on his feet, and at 6-foot-3, 230 pounds, is no small task to bring down. Throughout his time at Penn, he hasn’t been afraid to take or deliver hits, a key aspect of his playing style.
“I look downfield and see Alek get to the second or third level on guys and running them over,” Demes said. “I love to watch it because it means we got our job done up front and he’s able to punish guys that we wouldn’t be able to reach anyways.
“He’s an offensive lineman at heart, even though he plays a glamour position.”