Much of the discussion about Penn football so far this season has centered around the offense, with questions like, “Who will replace JWat?” and “Who will be the starting quarterback?” But through two games, the team's impressive defensive play deserves some more attention.
It’s early in the season, but so far, the defense has played with an improved energy from last year. During their 2-0 start in 2017, the Quakers relied on their offense to carry them to victory, scoring a combined 107 points and allowing 71 in the first two games. This year, on the other hand, the dominant defensive unit has totaled 17 sacks, three interceptions, and has given up just 3.3 yards per play.
These numbers are impressive in their own right, but they are astounding considering the fact that Penn has been without its pair of All-Ivy starting outside linebackers in junior Connor Jangro and senior Jay Cammon Jr. Both missed the first two games with injuries, but instead of there being an obvious void in their spots, players like Pat McInerney and Nico Ament have stepped up and made big plays.
The secondary, in the absence of senior captain and All-Ivy safety Sam Philippi, has gotten great contributions from a number of players. Senior Jyron Walker has been solid at corner, as expected, and on the other other side of him, freshman Mohammed Diakite has shined. Diakite has a pass break up in each of the first two games, including a shutdown performance in the couple of times he was thrown at near the endzone against Lehigh.
Junior Eric Markes had an interception against Bucknell, and junior Jacob Martin has been flying around the field, notching a pick in each of the first two games.
This “next man up” mentality that every team talks about seems to be a reality for the Penn defense. This unit’s depth will be especially advantageous as Ivy play begins and players inevitably get banged up.
The defense’s early success has also allowed Penn’s young offense to work with some margin for error. This is especially important for an offense that doesn’t have the type of established star that Justin Watson was during his time at Penn. The offense, like any with a new quarterback, needs time to grow. We’ve already seen that growth in quarterback Ryan Glover, who did not turn the ball over Saturday against Lehigh.
The offense should only get better the more game reps the players get, but it's nice knowing that they don’t have to be perfect; they don’t have to score 40 points per game, because the defense is holding it down.
We will know even more about the Red and Blue’s defensive unit after this coming week’s road test versus Dartmouth. Last year, the Quakers were one more goal-line stop away from victory, but Dartmouth punched it in from the 1-yard line as time expired. Not that the group needs any more motivation, but this memory could serve as fuel for the defense this Saturday in Hanover.
It is still too early to know just how good the defense is going to be, but these first couple of games should be leaving Quakers fans optimistic. We’ll know a lot more after next weekend, but this group has a chance to be truly special, especially after it gets Cammon and Jangro back.
Don’t be surprised if the Red and Blue end up at the top of the Ivy League when it’s all said and done. The defense has the makings of a championship winner, but for now, we’ll just have to wait and see.
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