By Dave Porter | In any other year, the optimism surrounding Penn’s football program would have been in full bloom as the Quakers looked forward to the traditional season opener against Villanova in mid-September. The defending undefeated Ivy League champions return virtually their entire offense intact and have such a surfeit of quality players on that side of the ball that some will likely be loaned to the defense so their talents don’t go to waste.
But this is not any other year, sadly, as for the second time in recent memory the program has had to absorb the death of one its players by his own hand. Co-captain Owen Thomas W’11, a defensive lineman who was second in the Ivy League in sacks last season, was found dead in his off-campus apartment on April 26, his death later confirmed as a suicide by his mother. The shock and pain brought back memories of the 2005 season, when running back Kyle Ambrogi W’06 took his own life on the Monday after a Quaker win against Bucknell.
The tragedies serve to underscore a truth that often is obscured by the hype and hoopla and marketing of college sports, even at the Ivy League level: namely, that underneath all that body armor these are mostly unformed, imperfect 18- through 21-year-olds, saddled with all the attendant fears and insecurities of their less physically endowed classmates, albeit often more adept at shrugging them off or “playing past them.” Sports also offer the built-in balm of a routine, and one that in football requires strict adherence; most people find it’s easier to keep the mind focused when there’s a marauding 260-pound defensive end bearing down on them.
Players on the 2005 team spoke of the emotional valley they hit a few weeks after Ambrogi’s death. Head coach Al Bagnoli later opined that the residual effects were felt into the next season and even beyond. So it was impossible to tell how Thomas’ death would affect a Penn team that would have to be considered a favorite to win the league for Bagnoli, who already has seven undisputed titles and three undefeated seasons under his belt as he enters his 19th season.
“Owen’s death happened after spring ball, so we’ve had four months to regroup,” Bagnoli said last month. “As to what effect it will have, that’s something I can’t answer. I just don’t know. But there’s no reason why we shouldn’t do well.”
Last year’s Quakers featured a defense that may have been one of Bagnoli’s best, which is high praise for a coach who routinely produces top-ranking units. The 2009 edition led the nation in scoring defense (9.5 points per game), rushing defense (63 yards per game), and total defense (217 yards per game), and allowed a grand total of 21 points in the season’s last five games.
With co-Ivy Player of the Year Jake Lewko W’10 and three other All-Ivy first-teamers gone, this year’s defense probably won’t have the same reinforced-steel bearing. But don’t expect it to turn into aluminum siding, either, with senior linebackers Zach Heller and Brian Levine, as well as junior linebacker Erik Rask, all of whom received All-Ivy honors last season, returning.
It would be difficult to overstate the depth of the crowd in the Quakers’ offensive backfield, but we’ll try: Think of the stateroom scene in the Marx Brothers’ Night at the Opera; think of a free buffet anywhere sportswriters are present. Penn’s top seven rushers return, including sophomore Lyle Marsh, who filled in when then-juniors Bradford Blackmon and Michael DiMaggio went down with injuries, and led the team in rushing. Blackman and DiMaggio are back and healthy, along with senior fullback Luke DeLuca and junior running back Matt Hamscher. Bagnoli could stock a ‘B’ team and probably compete well in the Ivies, but instead he’ll settle for giving Blackmon and Hamscher time in the defensive backfield when they’re not playing offense.
Senior Keiffer Garton, coming off knee surgery, returns as the incumbent starter at quarterback but will be pushed by junior John Hurley and sophomore Billy Ragone, both of whom filled in ably last year when injuries sidelined Garton and Kyle Olson C’10. Freshman Ryan Becker, who spent last season at Florida State, could be a wild card in the mix.
“He comes in with a great pedigree, from a great program, and he’s handled the stress of state championship games,” Bagnoli said of Becker, whose high school won back-to-back championships in Florida, a state with a pretty fair reputation for football talent. “He’s got the physical tools but also the intangibles; he’s a great leader. It’s going to be interesting to see how this thing is going to shake out.”
Freshman Aaron Bailey also arrived in West Philadelphia with an impressive pedigree, and could wind up a favorite target of Garton or anybody else. All Bailey did in high school was make the all-state team in Michigan—another talent-rich football state—as well as win the 100 meters at the state track championships.
“He’s fast by anybody’s standards, I don’t care what school he’s at,” Bagnoli said. “But he’s also got football quickness.”
Whoever plays quarterback will be protected by an offensive line that returns four of five starters from the unit that allowed the fewest sacks in the league last season. Throw in a couple of returning tight ends and the league’s leading field-goal kicker, senior Andrew Samson, and Penn’s defense should have a little wider margin for error than it felt it had a year ago.
Bagnoli has been so successful at Penn that it was convenient to characterize last season’s triumph as having lifted a weight off his shoulders after a series of lackluster finishes. But the record will show that the lean years lasted only from 2005 through 2007 before the Quakers righted themselves. The 2008 team’s convincing 23-6 defeat of Cornell in Ithaca in the season’s last game, a week after a dispiriting loss to Harvard that ended the Quakers’ title hopes, may have proved a foreshadowing of last season’s successes.
“As devastated as we were, we go to Cornell, our quarterback gets hurt on the first play, and our safety plays quarterback and wins the game on the road,” Bagnoli said. “Right there, I figured mentally and emotionally the team was prepared.
“We are set up to have as much parity as any conference in the country,” the coach went on. “It’s not like one school has an advantage over anybody else. We’ve created a monster here and created expectations, and that’s okay, it’s what you want. But the highest expectations I have are from myself. I don’t need anybody to tell me. I expect the program to be good, and I expect the kids to do everything that needs to be done in this environment. It wasn’t like it was seven or eight years where we weren’t in the hunt. In those middle years, we just weren’t deep enough and a little bit unlucky. But we’re positioned very well right now.”
Dave Porter C’82 writes for the Associated Press.