One year ago, Penn football was fresh off yet another disappointing season. The 3-7 finish, highlighted by a third-straight losing record in conference play that left the Quakers at the bottom of the Ivy League, had many calling for change within the program.
So when Penn kicked off its 2022 campaign on a sunny Saturday afternoon in September, pressure was high, but expectations for the team — which had graduated a number of key starters on both sides of the ball — were relatively low.
Suffice it to say that no one — not the Ivy media, not Vegas, and not even The Daily Pennsylvanian — could have predicted the unprecedented turnaround that would follow. Penn ended the season with an 8-2 record, good enough for second in the Ivy League, after pulling off major upset wins over Dartmouth, Yale, and Princeton — all of whom walloped the Quakers a season ago.
To explain the turnaround, the DP analyzed dozens of data points from the 2021 and 2022 seasons, examining the areas in which Penn experienced the greatest improvements. Here’s what the analysis found.
1. An offensive transformation under Aidan Sayin and Dan Swanstrom
Coming into the 2022 campaign, sophomore quarterback Aidan Sayin — who had played in only five games as a freshman — had lofty goals on his mind.
“I’m looking to win multiple championships, and hopefully set records here, and be the best quarterback Penn has ever had,” Sayin said on Sept. 14.
While it’s still too soon to determine his legacy as a Quaker, Sayin’s play this season was a major contributor to the Penn turnaround.
After finishing in the 4th percentile of historical Ivy League completion percentages last year, Penn skyrocketed to the 79th percentile this year, an unprecedented jump in a single season. The Quakers also improved from the 12th percentile to the 68th percentile in average passing yards per game from 2021 to 2022.
The improvements are thanks in no small part to a complete overhaul of the offense under first-year offensive coordinator Dan Swanstrom. Swanstrom served as Penn’s quarterbacks coach from 2014-2016 and helped to develop Alek Torgersen, a two-time first team All-Ivy selection and NFL player. He returned to Penn with a clear-cut offensive mantra in mind: Put players in the best positions possible to succeed and make big plays.
“We’re very understanding of what we’re trying to do here as a coaching staff, as teachers, as educators, as our commitment to excellence within the program, which we define as incremental improvement every single day,” Swanstrom said on Sept. 12.
While the statistical leaps in both completion percentage and average passing yards per game are more than incremental improvement, the benefits of Swanstrom’s system are clearest in the leaps in quarterback passer rating. In 2021, Penn’s quarterbacks combined for a 103.5 passer rating, located in the 7th percentile in the Ivy League. Sayin posted a 129.5 passer rating in 2022, a 38-percentile increase from the previous season. The rating still lags slightly behind the 131.7 Ivy average, but with Sayin only halfway through his collegiate career, the passing offense is on an upward trajectory.
2. A dominant defensive front, anchored by Jake Heimlicher
It’s difficult to capture the importance of Penn’s defense when it comes to the ways in which the unit was able to keep the team in tight games. The defense combined to allow 19.7 points per game in 2022, a nine-percentile improvement as compared to the 2021 total.
But it was the defensive front seven — led by first team All-Ivy senior outside linebacker Jake Heimlicher — that truly proved to be the difference-making unit.
The 2022 Quaker defense allowed 89.4 rush yards per game, ranking in the 85th percentile in the Ivy League, after allowing 135.2 rush yards per game in 2021, which placed in the 45th percentile. In similarly impressive fashion, the defense allowed only seven rushing touchdowns in 2022 after giving up 15 rushing touchdowns in 2021, a 44-percentile leap year to year. All told, the Penn rush defense leapt from sixth in the Ivy League in 2021 to first in 2022.
Even more impressive is the fact that the run defensive improvements come after the defensive line lost its star in defensive lineman Prince Emili.
“I think our plan to replace [Emili] has been good in terms of planning,” defensive coordinator Bob Benson told the DP before the season began. “We have a little bit of depth there and a replacement [plan] that we feel good about.”
It turned out that the plan would work. Heimlicher’s rise to stardom combined with senior linebacker Garrett Morris’ stellar season, in which he led the team in tackles en route to first team All-Ivy honors, would be enough for the defensive front to not only replace Emili, but improve as a whole.
3. Converting on third and fourth downs when it mattered most
They call third down the “money down” for a reason. It’s the chance for offenses to keep long drives alive, and this season, Penn’s offense continuously cashed in.
After converting just 32.1% of third downs a year ago — placing in the 12th percentile in the Ivy League — Penn’s offense moved the chains on 42.5% of its third downs in 2022, ranking in the 66th percentile.
And while the “clutch” factor of a team is nearly impossible to quantify, Penn seemed to constantly convert on fourth down when it mattered most.
Multiple critical fourth-down conversions in its double-overtime upset of Dartmouth on Sept. 30 were strong contenders as Penn’s play of the year. That is, until the Quakers pulled off an even more miraculous upset at Princeton, scoring a game-winning touchdown on fourth down with only five seconds left in the game.
Outside of those key moments, Penn converted a massive 52% of its fourth downs in 2022, an improvement from 42.1% in 2021 — good enough for a nearly 25-percentile increase.
To conduct the analysis, the DP used cumulative data from Penn Athletics for the 2021 and 2022 Penn football seasons, looking at numbers for both the team and individual players. The DP used the average statistics of the Ivy League from the past five seasons as a reference point for the percentile calculation.
Data Analytics reporters Srishti Bansal, Anmol Dash, Jin Kwon, Sophia Liu, and Kira Wang contributed reporting.