By David Porter | Of all the good reasons to return to Franklin Field on Saturday afternoons this fall, the most compelling is a player who spent the first half of the 2008 football season holding a clipboard and finished it in an ankle cast. It was what Keiffer Garton accomplished in between that gave a tantalizing glimpse into what may prove to be the resuscitation of Penn’s football program.
Pressed into action in the seventh week of the season after the two quarterbacks ahead of him succumbed to injury, the sophomore’s running and passing exploits firmly established him as the fulcrum of a team that enters the 2009 season loaded with experience at key positions and seemingly ready to make a genuine challenge for a league title for the first time since 2004.
“We’re always optimistic, but this year we’re even more optimistic because we’ve identified a kid who gives us a different dimension athletically, and as important, has the personality, demeanor, and self-confidence that rubs off on everybody,” Penn coach Al Bagnoli said about Garton.
For a player who has been called the Ivy League’s answer to Heisman Trophy-winning Florida quarterback Tim Tebow for his physical gifts and improvisational ability, the 6-foot-2, 205-pound Garton has stayed grounded, with the eager assistance of friends, family, and teammates. Listen to how they reacted when they saw his 63-yard touchdown run reflected in the box score of a 24-21 loss to Harvard:
“All my friends back home looked it up and and said, ‘How did that happen?’” he said. “I’m not exactly the fastest guy in the world. Even my little sister gave me a hard time. Guys on the team were saying how I was looking over my shoulder the whole time.”
Oddly enough, Garton claims he didn’t run the ball much as a high school quarterback at Castle Rock High in Colorado. It may have had something to do with having a running back who wound up breaking the state’s single-season rushing record. Garton put up respectable numbers and led the school to its first-ever state title as a junior, then followed that with an 11-2 record in his senior year and a loss in the state semifinals. Castle Rock coach Jeffrey Ketron remembers Garton as “the kind of kid who we saw right from the get-go was a winner” capable of inspiring those around him without boasting or chest-thumping. The National Merit Scholar’s college choice came down to Air Force and Penn.
“Obviously the academics were important, and I came from a winning program in high school with a strong head coach,” he said. “Coming out here with all the history and the whole feel of the program, from the players up to the coaches, it was just the right fit.”
Entering last year’s Brown game after an injury to junior starter Kyle Olson, Garton endured a bone-rattling tackle on his first carry—a “welcome-to-college-football” hit, as he describes it—then settled in and finished the season second on the team in rushing with 316 yards despite starting only three games. Twice he was named the Ivy League’s offensive player of the week. He tore ankle tendons at the end of the Harvard game but underwent offseason surgery and says he’s back to 100 percent.
“When you have a quarterback who can hurt you with his feet, that will open up more of the passing game,” Bagnoli said. “That’s been negated in the past to a degree.”
Another player who can hurt opponents with his feet—make that foot—is kicker Andrew Samson, a junior whose emergence as a consistent offensive threat has allowed Bagnoli a little more freedom to take chances inside the opposing team’s 20-yard line. Samson kicked a school-record 16 field goals in 19 attempts last season and finished second in the league in scoring.
With their top six rushers back including junior Michael DiMaggio, who finished third in the Ivy League with 585 yards last season, and five of their top six receivers returning, the Quakers will be able to attack opponents even if they don’t have a Jim Finn W’99 or Miles Macik C’96 to rewrite the record books. Garton figures to be spelled at quarterback periodically by Olson, who also has recovered from offseason surgery. Both will hope an offensive line that returns four players who started at least three games last season can be as effective as it was in 2008 when it allowed just 12 sacks in 10 games, second-fewest in the league.
Defense has perennially been the Quakers’ strong suit under Bagnoli, and this year’s unit is anchored by three seniors whose play helped Penn give up the fewest total yards and the second-fewest points in the Ivies in 2008: preseason All-America selection Joe Goniprow, who leads the defensive line; Jake Lewko at linebacker; and defensive back Chris Wynn, who led the Ivies in interceptions last season.
It all adds up to a qualified sort of optimism for a program that won 35 of 39 games from 2001 through 2004 but finds itself stuck at .500 (20-20) since then due to injuries, inconsistency, and plain bad bounces. The pendulum may be swinging back.
“Everybody is genuinely excited,” Bagnoli said. “There’s leadership and experience at key positions, and we have the kind of kids who’ve gotten a taste of how hard you have to work to be successful. The focus has been brought back; the swagger, I’m not sure it’s all the way back, but it’s heading in the right direction.”
David Porter C’82 writes for the Associated Press.