Two weeks ago, I asked what Penn team we would be seeing this year.
My question was more about which players would be on the field. We have our answer there. But two weeks in, we still don’t know who is going to be showing up on Saturdays.
It wouldn’t have been a bad guess to think the Quakers would be a scrappy cast of characters with little experience, just trying to get minutes on the field and build for the future. But these first two games have made it clear that coach Ray Priore is going to put the ball in the hands of the upperclassmen in an attempt to make a push for the Ivy League crown.
In these first two games of the season, Penn has relied heavily on seniors on offense, from John Quinnelly at quarterback to his favorite targets in Ryan Cragun and Rory Starkey Jr. When Quinnelly’s not looking for them downfield, he is almost surely handing the ball off on a run to graduate student Isaiah Malcome or senior Trey Flowers.
On defense, the Quakers have been led by defensive lineman Prince Emili and fellow graduate student and linebacker Brian O’Neill — both familiar faces. The unstoppable Emili anchors a line filled with upperclassmen, and O’Neill leads a tackling core that is dominated by them as well. All 13 of Penn’s leading tacklers are upperclassmen.
Even with the familiar faces, it has been a tale of two games for the Red and Blue.
In Week 1, the Quakers arguably didn’t show a single sign of weakness. Quinnelly played a nearly perfect game and the defense looked seamless.
This time around against Lafayatte, they looked far more vulnerable. The right word is probably disorganized. If the Quakers had fully executed, they probably could have won this game by multiple scores. But miscue after miscue — from dropped passes to low snaps to missed tackles — really kept Penn from breaking this game open.
If you’re an optimist, you can look at this as the Quakers getting all of their bloopers on the reel when it doesn’t really count. It’s better to make easy mistakes that are correctable than the alternative.
Pessimists might point out that the season-opening win wasn't that impressive, as Bucknell is a rather weak team that scored its only touchdown of the year against the Quakers.
Today at least, in offense, if it weren’t for drops, Penn would have been unstoppable on its seam routes off of run-pass options, which it ran at least ten times against the Leopards and continued to get open. It will be interesting to see if other opponents can adapt.
Quinnelly’s three interceptions were not a great sight today either, but they were all on bad decisions — not errant throws — meaning they could easily go away with time and experience.
A worry for me is run defense. The Leopards broke free for medium-length runs seemingly at will. On multiple occasions, Lafayette chose to run the ball on third-and-long, which can either be interpreted as showing respect to the Quakers’ secondary or disregard for their run defense.
It’s clear that the Quakers are talented. The bigger question now is if they can coalesce and perform when it matters most. If Week 2 is any indication, their biggest competitors won’t be the team that lines up against them, but themselves.
Two weeks ago, I wasn’t sure If I’d recognize this team. Now, I definitely do, but with the upperclassman-heavy roster, I might not next year, when most of these players will have graduated.
Instead of investing in the future, Priore appears to be in win-now mode. And it worked once so far, with a clearly dominant win against an in-state, out of conference foe in Bucknell. But it failed against another in Lafayette. There’s a lot to be happy about and perhaps more to be dismayed by.
But to paraphrase Eminem, these games are like broken calculators: They just don’t count.
Because non-conference games don’t factor into the standings, the Ancient Eight is the only thing that really matters. Looking for a chance to run the table and win it for the first time in five years, Priore is giving his seasoned seniors and experienced graduate students one last ride.
If Priore’s big bet doesn’t pay off, it could be his last ride too.
BRANDON PRIDE is a Wharton junior from Morgan Hill, Calif. studying finance. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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