Undefeated football team prepares for Ivy opener at Penn

by Alexander Agadjanian | 10/1/15 6:00pm

For a team with Ivy League title aspirations this season, the football team now lies a day removed from its time of reckoning. Out-scoring opponents 80-17 through two games, the Big Green have pummeled their way through a soft early out-of-conference schedule. Another non-conference foe awaits in two weeks, but before then, Dartmouth (2-0) will commence its Ivy League slate, opening at University of Pennsylvania (1-1) this Saturday.

Tabbed to finish sixth in the conference by the media preseason poll, the Quakers entered 2015 without Al Bagnoli, the coach who won nine Ivy titles in his 23 years as coach. So far, the team has endured very different outcomes in their first two games. In its season opener, Penn fell behind to Patriot League opponent Lehigh University toward the end of the first half and were eventually routed 42-21 by a balanced and effective run-pass offense. The Quakers’ subsequent Thursday night game brought about one of the bigger surprises in the Football Championship Subdivision so far this season.

Playing at their crosstown rival, the fourth-ranked Villanova University, the Quakers dominated early on, taking the first drive for a touchdown and scoring the first 17 points of the game. A 90-yard fumble recovery with under seven minutes left in the fourth quarter secured the monumental upset victory for the team. The magnitude of such a performance, however, slightly diminishes when considering Villanova played without its starting quarterback who was the 2014 FCS player of the year.

With the Quakers now on the horizon, Dartmouth quarterback Dalyn Williams ’16 said that their accomplishment would not alter how his team prepared for the game.

“We’re not really focused on that too much,” he said. “To get caught up in that, that’s extra stuff. [We need] to focus on ourselves, and it should take care of itself. We need to make sure as an offense we get better, and if we get better every week, there’s no one that can stop our offense.”

Penn junior signal caller Alek Torgersen leads an offense that has found more success through the air this year, as evidenced by a 23-16 passing to rushing first-down distribution. Through two games, Torgersen has exceeded the 500 passing yard mark and ranks second among Ivy quarterbacks in total passing yards. The quarterback has also scored the lone rushing TD for the Quakers, to go along with sophomore running back Tre Solomon who has notched 140 yards at a 5.4 yards per carry clip.

Facing the Quaker passing game, the Big Green secondary will have the added challenge of facing wide receiver Justin Watson, who has enjoyed a prolific start to 2015. Through two contests, the sophomore has caught the ball 15 times for 230 yards — the second most receiving yards in the conference — and has added three touchdowns. He will now encounter a Dartmouth pass defense which, cornerback Vernon Harris ’16 said, will try to bottle him up.

“You definitely key in on him a lot more than all the other players, but that doesn’t mean you take any other guys lightly,” he said. “It’s just understood that you got to know where this guy’s on the field at all times… Usually for every team that loves to throw the ball or wants to establish the passing game, there’s always one go-to receiver… So that’s the guy we focus on the most, in terms of knowing where he’s at, know what they do when he’s in different positions.”

Harris also pointed to the physicality that the Quakers have exhibited during his time at Dartmouth, and the tight contests that have resulted.

“Since I’ve played Penn here, they’ve always been a very tough and aggressive team,” Harris said, “It’s always come down to the wire. My sophomore year, it was the longest game in Ivy League football history, it went to four overtimes… A lot of teams are more aggressive than others in terms of what they do after the play. Penn in the past has always been one of those teams that keeps it going a little bit extra, so that’s one of those things we definitely look forward to.”

On the other side of the football, despite a two-game effort that has forced four turnovers, the Penn defense has shown inconsistency and weaknesses defending the run. The unit has yielded 170.5 rushing yards per game— the worst total in the Ivy League — and a total of four TDs to opposing runners. Lehigh did the most damage against the Quakers, who conceded 245 yards on the ground in their first game.

Williams emphasized the familiarity in facing this Penn defense, as well as the need to develop the offense in the early going.

“They run the same thing [as in previous years] with two high safeties,” he said. “They’re going to try to help run support with their safeties… just standard coverages. We just have to protect our front, establish our running game and build a rhythm in the passing game.”

It’s hard to extract much out of two early season non-conference games, but the last two weeks have still lent some indication about the Big Green’s offensive temperament. While the running game has been a constant with 145-yard and 147-yard outputs, the passing attack displayed tremendous improvement from the first to second game.

A strong third quarter in the season opener against Georgetown University could not offset a substandard 138-yard passing performance, but Williams and company rebounded explosively a week later. The senior threw for 313 yards and a touchdown on 21-28 passing — six completions of which went for at least 30 yards — and connected with Victor Williams ’16 for 178 yards and the touchdown. Dalyn Williams felt that this marked an important step especially for his receivers’ development.

“We have a lot of speed as a receiving corps, and I would say we have a lot of experience,” he said. “[For Victor Williams], this is his fourth year. Emory [Thompson ’18] got some playing time last year so he feels a lot more comfortable. He’s one guy that’s gotten a lot better from last year, it’s really jaw-dropping actually… [Jon Marc Carrier ’17] has matured, he’s been playing since his freshman year, Houston [Brown ’17] has been playing since his freshman year, so we’re reaping the benefits of those guys having to play young a couple of years ago.

Furthermore, Dartmouth particularly succeeded in exploiting the press man coverage that Sacred Heart University employed, from both quarterbacking and receiving standpoints. Williams felt his unit reacted to this type of defense well, but said it is one the Big Green will not see much more often this season.

“We definitely can take away that we know we can beat man [coverage],” he said. “But going forward, we’re going to see less man. Guys know about Ryan [McManus ’15], he was the best receiver in the league last year. You’re not man covering Ryan if you’re smart. And then Victor [Williams] almost had 200 yards… We know now that we have to do a good job finding the holes in zones. We’ve always have seen zone, but guys are definitely going to give us cushion going forward.”

Defensively, the team continued its overpowering play in constraining the opposing offense to 10 points or less for the second straight contest. In addition, the unit has forced eight turnovers and scored three defensive touchdowns in the early 2015 season. Harris credits a lot of the early success to the plethora of experienced players and how they have cooperated on defense.

“We’ve done well communicating with one another,” he said. “I think as a team, we really focused on coming out strong in games, and the chemistry is a lot better this year than it’s ever been in the past. We love one another, it’s obvious when we play out there, we really want to see each other succeed.”

A point of emphasis for the team during its pre-conference schedule has been to treat each game as if it were an Ivy matchup. Such maintenance of focus and intensity will assuredly help smooth the transition into the conference slate for the Big Green, but head coach Buddy Teevens recognizes the change that will come starting with Penn.

“They all count, [but] these count more because they’re in-conference,” he said. “Everybody’s got a goal at the end of the season, and to achieve that goal, success in the league is the critical point… There’s a lot of competitiveness in the league, and really it’s just [being] the best team on Saturday. There’s added awareness, and we want to improve every week and I expect us to.”