Monday, August 27, 2012

Ivy League Football 2012

It really looks like Harvard's Year


One of the great things about taking this blog to the private subscription model is I get a lot more freedom to tell it like it is.

The following Ivy season preview contains some blunt observations about the league and the individuals involved with it.

Just a little warning.

Okay, let's go!

Theme for 2012

Last year, just about every Ivy pundit was convinced that 2011 would be the "year of the quarterback." The logic was that since every Ivy team had a veteran starter returning, the QB's would dominate the outcome of the season.

But in the end, only one QB really did. almost all the other veterans disappointed in one way or another.

That one QB, of course, was Cornell's Jeff Mathews who shattered a bushell of Ivy passing records en route to a Bushnell Cup and a surprising late season surge for the Big Red. And he's still only a junior. (Can you say: "NFL-bound?").

My take last year was that it would, yet again, be the "year of the coach." Hey, in the Ivy League it's ALWAYS the year of the coach. And so the superior coaching and recruiting abilities of Harvard's Tim Murphy really shined through as the Crimson tore through the schedule to the championship. Similarly, Brown's Phil Estes guided his team to another strong season and Al Bagnoli managed to hide a major decline in defensive quality just enough to get his Penn Quakers into that logjam tie for second place.

On the other side of the coin, inferior coaching doomed Yale, Princeton, and of course Columbia to disappointing seasons. We all know what happened to Yale's Tom Williams and Columbia's Norries Wilson. I'll have more on the fate of Princeton's Bob Surace a little later.

 Of course, the coaches will again be the #1 factor in success or failure again this season. But THIS will be much more of a "year of the quarterback" than last year for a number of reasons:

1) All eyes will be on Mathews as even the non-Ivy news media is aware of him and will be following his progress closely.

2) Ivy powers Harvard and Brown will both be starting new QB's this season, and their success rides heavily on how well they perform.

3) New QB starters will also be unveiled at Dartmouth, Princeton and Yale. A tremendous amount will be riding on each of them.

4) The other two QB's, Columbia's Sean Brackett and Penn's Billy Ragone must improve on somewhat disappointing 2011 seasons for their teams to have a successful 2012.

So let's label 2012 "The Year of the QB... and We Really Mean it this Time!"

Predicted Order of Finish

1. Harvard
2. Cornell
3. Penn
4. Brown
5. Dartmouth
6. Columbia
7. Yale
8. Princeton

Okay, he's not a QB. But H-Back Kyle Juszczyk makes their QB look great!


I have to begin the discussion of the Crimson's chances with a slight change to the previous statement about how Harvard is starting a "new" QB this season. Yes, Colton Chapple did not start the 2011 season, but he did start a few games in place of now-graduated Collier Winters. The result was a 12 TD/2 INT split with an even more remarkable 8.7 yards per passing attempt. Things will be a little tougher on Chapple this year now that opposing teams will be able to prepare better for him, but I would be surprised if he doesn't have a stellar season overall.

Otherwise, Harvard is absolutely stacked. Two great RB's in Trevor Scales and Zach Boden. A solid, if not the best, O-line, and NFL prospect at H-Back, and the best secondary in the league.

There are some questions about the WR corps, but at Harvard you always have to assume the unknown talent only sat on the bench last year because there was too much talent to give everyone significant varsity playing time.

What gives me more pause is the fact that Harvard has to play both Brown and Penn on the road this year. And the Crimson have had trouble winning those games on the road in recent years. But Brown just doesn't look that strong this season and Penn has a lot of improving to do over last year.

If you're looking for reasons Harvard may stumble, go back seven years. In 2005, the Crimson were in this same position; predicted to easily win the championship with a player in RB Clifton Dawson who was a heavy favorite for Player of the Year.

It didn't happen. Harvard faltered down the stretch, lost to Princeton, and Brown won the title.

The annual Harvard-Brown match up will tell us a lot this year once again. It's in week two. It ended up being the most important Ivy game of the season last year, and it could be again this time.

This really looks like Harvard's year... again.

Jeff Mathews is a god walking among us


If it weren't for a couple of laggards at the bottom of the standings, you could really just predict that 2012 will be Harvard, and everyone else sort of tied for second.

But Cornell's Mathews, who combines great talent with leadership, sets the Big Red apart. Yes, there are major questions about the defense and the running game, but Cornell won some key games with those weaknesses last year and Head Coach Kent Austin means business.

Mathews reminds me a lot of Columbia's great QB John Witkowski '84. Just like Witkowski, Mathews is making his entire corps of wide receivers into record-breakers too. Shane Savage, Kurt Ondash, Luke Tasker, and Grant Gellatly are all lethal when they combine with Mathews week in and week out.

The offensive line is much improved and I'm not as concerned about the state of a weak running game when Mathews can use short passes to grind up yardage the same way. I also think the secondary will get a lot better led by up and coming sophomore Andrew Nelson, who I think is poised for a breakout year.

Everyone else is more down on the Big Red, picking them no higher than 3rd. But when Ivy schools have legit NFL star talent at key positions, (and is there any position MORE key than QB), lots of other weaknesses tend to melt away. We saw this up close in 1996 when future NFL All-Pro Marcellus Wiley propelled a so-so Columbia team to an 8-2 season.

If this were the NFL, I'd make more of an issue about the defense and the running game. But it's almost unseemly to watch all the other pundits try to throw some kind of cold water on this team with a dynamite QB who has the great chance of raising awareness and positive press for our league.

Cornell's major test comes relatively early this year; a week four tilt at Harvard Stadium. Some teams might falter after a letdown loss like the one that seems likely to face the Big Red in that game. But Mathews' desire will keep the Cornell going for the rest of the season if they fall to the Crimson.

Billy Ragone's winning moment against Columbia last year


The Quakers darn near lost to the Lions, Big Green, and could do little to stop the offensive power of Harvard and Cornell in the final two weeks of the season.

Penn shockingly wasn't able to just reload on defense last year, something they have done year after year... until now. The defense should be better in 2012, but it's still in question. As some of us expected, Penn hasn't been able to bounce back easily every since long-time great linebackers coach Cliff Schwenke retired after the 2009 season. Penn's championships in 2010 and 2011 masked the fact that the depth was eroding in the linebacking crew that has long sustained the program.

Another concern in QB Billy Ragone. He can run extremely well and his passing is... okay. The Quakers are clucking about their restored strength at WR thanks to the return of Conner Scott who was injured last year, and the addition of stunning speedster freshmen Cameron Countryman who should get a chance to play early.

But how strong can the receivers be with a QB who is only an average passer like Ragone? If the Quakers are going to be successful on offense this year, it will again be because Bagnoli is able to use his several talented running backs by committee. Brandon Colavita is the best of that committee, even though Lyle Marsh is coming back this season. I think Marsh had a chance to be a 1,000-yard rusher, but he has been too injury prone and I don't think he's going to be 100% this year either. Jeff Jack is probably going to be getting more carries than Marsh by the time the season ends.

Penn has a favorable schedule, (they get Harvard and Brown at home this year), and I'm certainly not predicting a collapse. But Harvard's strength has to be making even the cockiest Quaker doubtful about the chances of returning to the championship circle in 2012. And that doubt should take a toll well before the week nine showdown with the Crimson.

I had to go all the way back to his Exeter days to find a good shot of Patrick Donnelly


The Bears were doing such a fine job of shaking off the week two loss to Harvard last year, winning week after week. But then they inexplicably lost to both Dartmouth and Columbia the last two weeks of the season and finished a respectable if somewhat disappointing 7-3.

How well the Bears do this season depends on how much faith you have in Coach Estes' ability to reload with another top-flight QB. Logic dictates that you can't just assume anyone can just do this, but Estes just keeps doing this time after time. With so many other teams relying on fresh newcomers at QB, you have to think Estes has an edge when it comes to dealing with a new signal caller.

So why aren't I picking the Bears to finish higher? Mostly because there are serious questions about the wide receivers and running backs too. When push comes to shove, I don't think Brown can overcome all these obstacles enough to get a top three finish.

The man in the spotlight is QB Patrick Donnelly. He's not entirely fresh, with 81 varsity passing attempts in total and he's had success with Brown's stellar JV team. I'm not ready to call him an All Ivy QB, but I'm also not keen on ignoring him either.

The defense is underrated as usual, but there's no excuse for overlooking how much better the Bears have done in recent years. The defensive line looks strong and AJ Cruz is the best DB in the league right now.

But with nothing to really make my eyes pop at RB, (Estes is going to try again with the oft-injured and not spectacular tandem of Mark Kachmer and Spiro Theodosi), it's hard to think Brown will be able to beat Harvard in week two let alone put together another 7-3 campaign.

A lot rides on Alex Park in Hanover this year


The Big Green have what Brown doesn't have, a deep and promising slate of RB's. But they don't have a program that can be relied on to produce a dangerous new starting QB.

Advantage: Brown.

But not a super big advantage. Because while Connor Kempe never had what it took to make Dartmouth a real contender in the Ivies, his futility gave some replacements a chance to play a bit last year. Alex Park looked good in the spring and has a good crop of talented WR's in Michael Reilly and Kirby Schoenthaier. I know Park is a transfer from the super University of New Hampshire, but it bothers me that he didn't play more last year when Head Coach Buddy Teevens was so dissatisfied with Kempe.

But the real deal in Hanover are the two RB's stepping in to replace the graduated Nick Schwieger. Are Dominic Pierre and Greg Patton as good as the record-breaking and Bushnell Cup-winning Schwieger? No. But COMBINED they may prove more valuable as they grind out yards and the clock against opponents week after week.

The defense has Bronson Green at LB, a legit Bushnell Cup contender, and Chase Womack coming back from injury in the secondary. I'm not wild about Dartmouth's defensive front, but it'll be good enough to keep the Green close in games against teams not named Harvard.

The key game for Dartmouth will again be the Yale contest. The Big Green routinely play their worst game every year against the Elis. Who knows why? But if they can make the week four contest at the Yale Bowl a positive, then maybe they flip with Brown for a spot in the top half of the Ivies.


My prediction for Columbia this season is for 6th place. A full write-up on the Lions will appear next weekend.

This is Yale's most experienced QB... I don't recognize him either


Yale has a new untested coach, a new untested QB, and may lose it's top defensive player.

Naturally, everyone thinks they'll come in fourth.


To be fair, Tony Reno will probably be an improvement over Tom Williams who never really grasped what it means to be an Ivy coach and he paid for it time after time. And whomever replaces the erratic, cocky, and possibly felonious Patrick Witt at QB will probably be a better team leader. But a winner? I don't think so... not yet at least.

And why Reno? He was a good young assistant for Yale a few years ago, but not a top assistant, and he was not loved in New Haven after he bolted to rival Cambridge for the last few seasons.

For a team that should have looked for someone to clean up the ugly image around the program left by Williams and Witt, I don't get why they went with another person who has a shady reputation.

On the field, Yale's best weapons are on the ground. RB Mordecai Cargill is a load and Khalil Keys looks good coming back from injury. So does Canadian transfer Tyler Varga.

If the Elis had a great OL to bolster that running game, I'd pick them higher. But they don't. And a new O-line plus a new QB spells s-c-a-r-y.

On defense, former captain Will McHale is the top guy at LB. Only trouble is, he punched out a fellow Yale student in a bar and I think more punishment is coming his way. Watch for an actual game suspension or two. If not, chalk that up as the latest reason to look askance at this program. You can also ask: "what are they thinking?"

The other big star on defense is DB Nick Okano. He's the real deal.

But the defensive line seems thin, that's not good.

And once again, you have to emphasize that Yale must start a completely green new QB this season. And this is not Brown. You can't bet on the starter being a real asset right now.

Yale starts the season at Georgetown, at Cornell, and at Colgate. There's a good chance they lose all of those games before they host Dartmouth. And Dartmouth wants that game in the worst way.

This is not the Bulldogs year.

Does THIS look like a starting college QB to YOU?


Let's see. Princeton has no QB, no RB, and probably the most in-over-his-head coach in the Ivies.

Any questions?

Everyone but Craig Haley has picked the Tigers for dead last, and that was BEFORE 2011 Ivy Rookie of the Year Chuck Dibillio was officially scratched for this season. (I really need to get what Haley's drinking).

The good news is that Princeton's defense should get a full season of super DT Caraun Reid and DE Mike Catapano after Reid had an early injury last year and basically lost the season.

Leading QB candidate Quinn Epperly is not a great passer. Some tout his running skills, but that's by default. Expect someone else to get a lot of time under center, but no one spectacular.

I do think RB Brian Mills has a shot to have a good season, if not as good as Dibillio who was that rarest of gems: a 1,000 yard rusher in the Ivy League. The wide receiver corps is solid if not super.

Oh, and the Tigers also lose to graduation their outstanding kicker of the last four years in Patrick Jacob.

This team is looking at a possible 0-10 season. Really.


Anonymous said...

Here's my predicted finish: 1. Columbia 2. Harvard. 3. Penn 4. Cornell 5. Brown 6. Dartmouth 7. Yale 8. Princeton.

oldlion said...

Jake, I am very disappointed in your prediction about our beloved Lions. A healthy Brackett plus a stout defense will put us in the top four teams. Penn is overrated, Mathews will crumble under pressure, and we played Harvard tough last year.

#1 Lion said...

Great stuff Jake!!! Thanks!!!