As Penn looks to continue its strong start to the season and compete for an Ivy League title, a giant stands in their way.
That giant is Dartmouth football, as well as the mountain of precedent that the matchup carries with it. Dartmouth has defeated the Quakers in each of their last four faceoffs by a combined score of 112-49.
But, as the team travels to New Hampshire to begin its conference schedule, an aura of optimism permeates throughout the group. In their eyes, this is not the same Dartmouth team that won a share of the Ivy League title a year ago, nor is it the same Quaker group that struggled to a 3-7 record last year. This time, Penn believes things will be different.
“We’re really confident,” senior defensive lineman Jake Heimlicher, who was recently named Ivy League Defensive Player of the Week, said. “Going into this matchup, they’ve had our number the last couple years, but we have a team that’s resilient and ready to get after it.”
In 2021, Dartmouth utilized a unique strategy en route to a 9-1 record and one of the most scathing offensive attacks in the FCS. The Big Green employed a two-quarterback system, with Derek Kyler and Nick Howard splitting snaps under center. While Kyler was the more adept passer, Howard added another dimension to the offense with his rushing ability, and both earned All-Ivy League honors. But Kyler transferred to Pitt in the offseason, leaving Howard to ascend to the role of QB1.
With Howard alone at the helm, Dartmouth’s scoring output has not skipped a beat. The Big Green are averaging 36.5 points per game, with the bulk of their production coming from the ground attack. The team has 701 rushing yards over two games, with tailback Zack Bair contributing 223 yards and a touchdown, and Howard tallying 243 yards and four touchdowns.
While the Dartmouth run game will certainly provide a challenge greater than any the Quakers have faced this season, it will not be anything they have not seen before. Colgate, whom the Quakers dispatched in week one, featured a similar scheme led by mobile quarterback Michael Brescia.
“The quarterback in our first game against Colgate, that was a very similar concept and offense that they ran,” coach Ray Priore said. “So we’ve gotten a little bit of a live version of it already, which is always good to see.”
The Quaker defense stifled Brescia in their opening matchup, holding him to -4 rushing yards on 14 carries. If they can repeat that performance against Howard, it will go a long way toward earning a victory.
Heimlicher leads a defensive line that held Lafayette to a net total of one rushing yard, and will be crucial in stymying the Dartmouth offense. After a 10-tackle, one-sack performance against Lafayette last week, he cites his commitment to preparation as the secret behind his recent success.
“Just getting in the film room, seeing all the tendencies of the different offenses we’ve been playing,” Heimlicher said when asked what factor has most contributed to his standout play.
In regard to the defense as a whole, Heimlicher believes their relentless approach is behind their superb start to the season. The Quakers have not allowed an offensive touchdown thus far, and according to Heimlicher, give 100% effort on every down.
“As a unit, just staying focused on every play, never exhaling, and getting after the QB,” Heimlicher said.
Slowing down Dartmouth will be a tall task for the Quaker defense, but to this point, the group has demonstrated a staunchness that will need to continue if they want to write a new chapter in the rivalry with the Big Green.
Offensively, Penn has been solid thus far, but has left much to be desired in the way of explosiveness. The team had just one play of more than 15 yards against Lafayette, and short of an electric second half against Colgate, there have been few flashes of potential improvement.
The Dartmouth defense, however, is in an arguably worse position. Last week against Sacred Heart, the Big Green took a 31-17 lead with 5:34 left to play in the third quarter, seemingly putting the game on ice. But the Sacred Heart offense responded with 14 unanswered points, sending the bout to overtime. There, the Dartmouth defense gave up the game-winning touchdown, losing by a final score of 38-31 and snapping the team’s 20-game non-conference win streak.
Coming off of such a colossal letdown, Dartmouth will look to swarm Penn’s offense and overwhelm sophomore quarterback Aidan Sayin. Sayin has thrown three interceptions across the first two weeks, a habit he will need to quit in order to thwart Dartmouth.
In order to take some of the pressure off of their quarterback, Penn’s receiving core will also need to generate more consistent separation. With the exception of a 57-yard throw and catch to Julien Stokes in the first quarter against Lafayette, there has been little in the way of a vertical passing attack. If the defense is unable to completely shut down Dartmouth, the offense will need to look for more chunk plays in order to keep pace.
Going into a matchup against such a formidable opponent is a daunting test for any team. But if the Quakers want to capitalize on their early season momentum and prove they are cut out for Ivy League contention, it is a test they will need to pass.
“They’re a very well-coached team,” Priore said of Dartmouth. “They don’t make mistakes.”
Regardless of recent history between the two programs, the Quakers will take the field on Friday night armed with a fervent belief in themselves. From the conference championship banners hanging in Dartmouth’s stadium to their punishing run game, the Big Green loom large.
But the Quakers are not making the trip with the intent of allowing the past to dictate the present.
“I feel good about the guys that will be hopping on the bus,” Priore said of the team’s chances. “We’re going up there with a focus of mind, and we’re thinking very positively.”
On Friday, we'll find out if Priore’s feelings are well-placed.