Thursday, October 12, 2006

Scouting the Quakers

Another year, another season where The University of Pennsylvania Quakers are contending for the title. It's basically been the case since Al Bagnoli became the head coach in 1992.

But a closer look shows that for the second year in a row, there's something different about these Quakers, something less invincible. And it's not the tragic suicide of reserve player Kyle Ambrogi in the middle of last season. What it is, quite simply, is that for the third straight season, Penn is without a top quarterback.

For most of Al Bagnoli's career, he has had the luxury of a great starting quarterback at the helm. Two were highly-touted transfers from Division I-A programs, Matt Rader from Duke and Gavin Hoffman from Northwestern. After Hoffman came 2003 Bushnell Cup winner Mike Mitchell.

But since Mitchell graduated in 2004, Penn's QB's have been noticeably weaker. Pat McDermott did a solid job, but he never was the guy who could beat you on his own. And the current quarterback Robert Irvin just doesn't seem like that guy either. This does not mean McDermott or Irvin are bad by any means, it's just that Rader, Hoffman and Mitchell were so good, that perhaps Penn fans, Penn players, and even Penn coaches, began to take it for granted that the team's quarterbacking would always be spectacular. That assumption was a much bigger factor in Penn's rare non-winning season last year than anything else. And it appears it still is the Quakers' Achilles heel.

Whether that weakness will be enough to give Columbia or anyone other than Harvard or Princeton a good chance of beating Penn this season is debatable. Penn still seems like the third or second best team in the Ivies, thanks to a number of weapons, especially on defense. If the Quakers catch Harvard on a bad day next month, they could still win the championship. That's how good Bagnoli, the defense, and some other stars like tailback Joe Sandberg are.


Let's start with the defense, which is better than the stats indicate, even though those stats aren't too bad. Penn has eleven sacks and 33 tackles for a loss overall. Those numbers aren't spectacular, but the Quakers are bending and not breaking on defense a lot this year. A good example of that was the opening game at Lafayette, when Penn was out-gained by the Leopards, but still won 21-11. Lafayette racked up 417 yards of total offense, but still scored just one TD. And turnovers weren't the culprit; the Leopards coughed it up just once. The Quakers simply got tougher when Lafayette got close to their goal. That's been the m.o. they've maintained for the rest of the season. Sometimes that can be dangerous, because aggressive defenses usually have more success, but Penn is working this angle quite well.

There are some stars to mention here. Senior defensive lineman Brian Fairbanks is a playmaker with three sacks and eight tackles-for-a-loss overall. Junior Joe Anastasio is the best linebacker, leading the team with 34 tackles and he has five-and-a-half tackles for a loss and a sack. Sophomore Tyson Maugle seems to be the best of the defensive backs as he has three interceptions and five other passes broken up this season. But for the most part, this is a good team defense that plays that way. To beat this unit, an opposing offense has to avoid getting comfortable with what works between the 20-yard lines and be ready to mix it up once it gets into the red zone. Penn may be more vulnerable to some razzle dazzle.


Penn is led on offense by standout tailback Joe Sandberg. He's had two 100-yard+ games this season and two sub-100-yard performances, but in one of those non-100-yad rushing games he scored on a 74-yard touchdown. He'd be a legitimate candidate for the Bushnell Cup right now if it weren't for his surprisingly unspectacular performance against Dartmouth two weeks ago. In that game he had just 65 yards on 22 carries against a Big Green defense that has not really been able to stop any of the other rushers its faced all year. It's possible Sandberg just had an off day, but that game has to give the Penn coaches some cause for concern. Meanwhile, the offensive line seems to be superb. The Quakers have given up just four sacks all season and Sandberg and the backup runners seem to have enough room to run most of the time.

Quarterback Robert Irvin's weaknesses aren't huge, but as mentioned earlier, he's not the kind of QB who can beat you on his own. He's on a pace to throw for a ho-hum ten TD's passing and ten interceptions this season, and like Sandberg, his performance against Dartmouth wasn't exactly awe-inspiring. It will be interesting to see how Irvin performs with a steady pass rush in his face; something he's been able to avoid dealing with most of this season.

The wide receivers are coming along. What looked like a serious weakness at the start of the season is now something of a strength. Junior Braden Lepisto seems to be the best of this bunch, as he has 18 catches for 304 yards and two touchdowns. Senior Matt Carre has 19 grabs for 215 yards, and senior tight end Chris Mizell, (who played his high school ball a stone's throw from Wien Stadium at Horace Mann in the Bronx), has been a good target this season with 12 catches for 128 yards.

Special Teams

Kicker Derek Zoch is pretty reliable from 35 yards in. But he's not a deep field goal threat, and my guess is the Penn coaches would not want to see him being forced to win a game for the team. Punter Anthony Mellilo is solid.

Penn's best strength on special teams is punt and kick returning. Greg Ambrogi is averaging more than 13-yards a punt return, and he had one 60-yarder for a touchdown against Villanova. Tyler Fisher, Sam Shepherd, and Lepisto are all proficient at kickoff returns, but it seems like Shepherd is the best among them. One gets the feeling that Penn will severely hurt some opponents at some point this season with a big kick return or two.

Overall: This is still a great team and a great program. Any points about weaknesses this or last season are only in relation to how strong the team was before 2004. At this point in the season, it appears the Quakers are straddling the fence between returning to greatness and slipping a little back into the pack. The win against Lafayette seemed like the work of a championship team. But the win over Dartmouth was okay, but not impressive. And the victory over Bucknell and the close loss to Villanova did not tell us much. It's not clear if the Columbia game will tell us anything completely definitive, but we will learn more.


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