NOTEBOOK: Football's Defensive Line, Potent Attack Neutralized in Loss to Penn
PHILADELPHIA, Pa.—Penn (5-4, 5-1 Ivy) gaining 22 yards rushing on the first two plays of the game and scoring a few snaps later on a 32-yard strike from Quakers quarterback Billy Ragone was an indication that the Harvard defense was not its usual dominant self in one of the most important games of the year.
Coming in with the top-ranked rushing defense in the FCS, the stout Crimson defense had previously allowed fewer than 44 rushing yards per game. But with the title on the line, Harvard (7-2, 4-2 Ivy) failed to find an effective way to counter the double-headed rushing attack of Ragone and running back Lyle Marsh that ran around, through, and over the Crimson’s front four, tallying 95 and 130 yards, respectively, on the day.
“Unlike a lot of teams that had played [Harvard] already, we lined up in a lot of two-tight-end sets, having a fullback on the field, having a lot of power, and really just running at them,” Marsh said. “We knew going in that we were going to focus on running downhill and not get away from that, even if we were struggling with it at times.”
Both quarterback and running back burned Harvard multiple times on lengthy scampers down the field, with Marsh finding holes and breaking tackles to record a 47-yard pickup in a drive that would culminate in Penn’s second touchdown.
“They did a good job blocking our guys,” Harvard coach Tim Murphy said. “You can talk about schemes, you can talk about strategy, but they did a good job blocking our guys at the point of attack, and they made the most of it fairly consistently during the game to keep their drives alive, to keep us off balance.”
With the Quakers’ running game keeping the front four honest, Harvard was unable to generate the pass rush that was averaging an FCS-leading five sacks per game coming into Saturday. Ragone wasn’t sacked a single time Saturday in the Crimson’s first sackless performance of the year.
The Penn offensive line gave the Quaker signal caller ample time to throw for two scores and 108 yards. Even after a hard hit dislocated Ragone’s ankle on the last play of the third quarter, backup quarterback Andrew Holland took over and completed a touchdown strike of his own to tight end Mitchell King just three plays later to extend Penn’s lead to 28-14.
With sophomore right tackle Will Whitman already out for the season due to injury, the last thing senior quarterback Colton Chapple needed was for another experienced offensive lineman nto go down with an injury.
But midway through the second quarter, senior center Jack Holuba limped off the field and did not return to the game, as he emerged after halftime on crutches and a cast on his right leg.
The effects of the injured offensive front were felt heavily by Chapple, who was under pressure all day and was sacked six times, more than the line had allowed this season. When Chapple didn’t go down, he was often flushed out of the pocket or forced out of rhythm by the rush. The senior finished the game with one of his worst statistical performances of the year, throwing for 174 yards and a season-high two interceptions.
On a crucial third and 18, down a score with under two minutes to go and with the Crimson backed up to its own three, the pocket collapsed around Chapple, as it had several times earlier in the game. The quarterback scrambled around the end zone, trying to escape the swarming Quakers defensive line before finally being brought down by Brandon Copeland for a safety, sealing the victory for Penn. It was Penn’s third-straight sack on the three-play drive.
“The defensive line had a great game today,” Copeland said.
THIRD TIME NOT THE CHARM
Penn bested Harvard in many facets of Saturday’s game, and third-down conversions were no exception. The Crimson failed to gain a single first down on six drives and only converted four of 13 third downs, while the Quakers effectively moved the chains on half of their own third downs.
In the final quarter, Harvard went two-for-five on third-down conversions and had three three-and-outs, leading to excellent field position for Penn, which averaged a starting position of its own 40.
Although the Quakers were unable to expand their lead after King’s acrobatic grab in the first minute of the fourth, the edge in field position allowed Penn to pin the Crimson near its own end zone for much of the fourth quarter, leading to the decisive safety.