Dave Zeitlin

Inside Doop: Andre Blake stars but Union offense lifeless again

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USA Today Images

Inside Doop: Andre Blake stars but Union offense lifeless again

Under normal circumstances, finding a way to earn a point at Red Bull Arena would be a decent accomplishment for a Union team that’s won only one time there in 10 trips.

But considering where they are in the standings and how little excitement came from the game — except for the performance of one player — you’ll have to forgive Philly fans for not getting fired up about Sunday’s nationally televised scoreless draw vs. the New York Red Bulls.

Here’s a closer look at the game — and more — in this week’s Inside Doop.

Three thoughts about Sunday’s game
1. What more can you say about Andre Blake at this point? The star goalkeeper has been the team’s brightest star over the past two years, winning the Union points in games in which they had no business winning points. Sunday’s game was the latest example as Blake made eight sparkling saves, including seven in the first half, to keep the Red Bulls off the board. And Union fans can exhale after the goalie went down with what looked like a neck injury before popping back up. This was easily his best game since returning from his Gold Cup injury and a good sign heading into the offseason next month.

2. The team’s center back pairing has been in flux for much of the season, and on Sunday, Richie Marquez made his first start since April, alongside rookie Jack Elliott. Perhaps the most interesting part of this pairing is that Elliott, a fourth-round pick in the 2017 draft, has been the best and most reliable center back of a group that also includes veteran Oguchi Onyewu and Joshua Yaro, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2016 draft. And Marquez, a former late-round pick himself who emerged as one of the team’s top young players in 2015 and 2016, had fallen off the map until this weekend. So the biggest question now is whether Elliott continues his upward trajectory — the rookie put in another strong shift vs. the Red Bulls — or if he plummets on the depth chart like Marquez, who likely didn’t do enough to win back a starting role when everyone is healthy and available.

3. There was nothing doing offensively for the Union, who have generated very little in that department in road games this season. Against the Red Bulls, they had only two shots on target, missed a lot of passes, won only two corner kicks, and had less than 40 percent of the possession. The problems? Ilsinho getting yanked after playing only the first 45 minutes and Roland Alberg not getting on the field is another example of their inconsistency at playmaker. And over on the wings, Chris Pontius remains stuck on zero goals this season, Fafa Picault was absent with an illness, and Fabian Herbers’ injury absence continues to be a noticeable void. Aside from striker CJ Sapong, who’s enjoying a career year, which offensive player can you really count on going into 2018?

Three thoughts for the week ahead
1. What will the reception be like from Union fans when they return home to face the Chicago Fire on Saturday (7 p.m., TCN) for their first game at Talen Energy Stadium in nearly a month? Although not yet officially mathematically eliminated from the playoff race with five games left, the Union have less than a one-percent chance to get in thanks to a six-game winless streak. And although there have been a smattering of boos for head coach Jim Curtin in recent games, it seems apathy has set in for most of the fanbase as they come to terms with another lost season.

2. The biggest noise from the crowd may be for Bastian Schweinsteiger if he takes the field for Chicago; the German legend has been nursing an injury. But the Fire, in third place in the East and coming off a 3-0 shellacking of D.C. United, still have plenty of other weapons if he can’t go. And, in many ways, their rise from last place in the East the last two seasons to a legitimate MLS contender shows how quickly teams can turn things around — if they make shrewd moves and spend money in the right places. Can the Union learn from that this offseason?

3. Who will start at center back with Onyewu poised to return from a suspension and Yaro potentially back from a minor knee injury? Curtin has said he doesn’t want to just throw young guys in there but it might be nice to use a few games — especially against high-octane offensive teams like Chicago, Atlanta and Seattle — to try to figure out who would be a better option between Yaro or Marquez to play beside Elliott next year. Or maybe Onyewu showed he has enough left in the tank to return to a starting role next season? Or will they have to bring in someone else? There will, for sure, be some interesting offseason decisions at center back.

Stat of the week
The Union have won just one game and earned only nine road points through 15 contests this year (with two road games left). Aside from their 2010 expansion team, when they earned seven points in 15 road games, their lowest road point total for a season is 13 (2012 and 2015).

Quote of the week
“These are results now, on the road in recent weeks, where if we did our work early on in the season, they would be positive results. But right now, as we chase from behind, it’s difficult.”

— Union head coach Jim Curtin

Player of the week
Blake is the easy choice here. The final score could have been ugly without him.

Villanova vs. Lafayette: In return to FCS play, Wildcats host Lafayette in home opener

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Villanova vs. Lafayette: In return to FCS play, Wildcats host Lafayette in home opener

No. 7 Villanova (1-1) vs. Lafayette (0-2)
Villanova Stadium
Saturday, 6 p.m.

Fresh off an impressive showing in a loss to city rival Temple, Villanova returns to FCS play and welcomes Lafayette for its home opener.

Here’s a closer look at the matchup:

Scouting Lafayette
Picked to finish last in the Patriot League after a 2-9 season last year, the Leopards have once again struggled out of the gate. They dropped a 31-12 decision to Monmouth in their opener before falling to Sacred Heart, 38-24, last week. The good news for Lafayette is that its freshman quarterback, Sean O’Malley, threw for 287 yards and three touchdowns in just his second career start. The Leopards are also led by a first-year coach in John Garrett, who was hired to replace longtime head man Frank Tavani, making this something of a rebuilding year for a program that hasn’t had a winning season since 2009. But they do have some players Villanova will need to keep an eye on, including all-league linebacker Brandon Bryant and tight end Dylan Wadsworth.

Scouting Villanova
After opening its season with a 38-35 win over Lehigh, Villanova had a valiant effort vs. Temple last week, rallying to tie the game before losing on a late Owls field goal, 16-13. Quarterback Zach Bednarczyk threw for 382 passing yards in the game — the team’s highest single-game total since 2005 — with receivers Ryan Bell, Taurus Phillips and Changa Hodge as his top targets. Jeff Steeb (eight tackles) and the ’Nova defense also had a big performance, although the Wildcats’ rushing attack was mostly bottled up in the loss.

History
Paced by two defensive touchdowns, Villanova rolled to a 31-14 victory over Lafayette last year in the first matchup between the two programs since 1920. Lafayette won that 1920 clash, as it did in 1898, 1899, 1914 and 1920. Saturday’s game marks the first time Villanova has ever hosted Lafayette.

Storyline to watch
Villanova owns a 30-4 record against Patriot League opponents since 1985, and should have little trouble improving that mark Saturday. The biggest thing to watch is how the players handle the emotions of a home opener and how well they can control the game on the ground, led by running backs Matt Gudzak and Aaron Forbes, against an overmatched opponent.

What’s at stake?
Saturday marks the final regular season non-conference game for Villanova, which will then play eight straight CAA contests. A loss would certainly be detrimental for their FCS playoff hopes but the most important part of the Wildcats’ schedule begins next week.

Prediction
It would be a surprise if this one was close.

Villanova 49, Lafayette 10.

Penn begins quest for 3rd straight Ivy League title with uncertainty at QB

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Penn Athletics

Penn begins quest for 3rd straight Ivy League title with uncertainty at QB

Looking for his third straight Ivy League championship in his third year as head coach, Ray Priore guides the Penn football team into a 2017 campaign filled with both sky-high expectations and uncertainty at the most important position on the field.

Ahead of the Quakers’ season-opener vs. Ohio Dominican on Saturday at Franklin Field (1 p.m., CSN), here’s a closer look at what to expect from Penn this season:

Offense
At wide receiver, there’s no one better in the Ivy League and few better in all of FCS football than Justin Watson, a star senior who ranks second in Penn history in career receptions (205) and receiving yards (2,694) and enters the season a preseason first team All-American and candidate for the Walter Payton Award.

The Quakers are also stacked at running back, where senior Tre Solomon returns after leading the Ivies in rushing yards (907) last season.

But nobody on Penn’s roster has taken a college snap following the graduation of Alek Torgersen, now with the Washington Redskins' practice squad. And after a hard-fought training camp quarterback competition, senior Will Fischer-Colbrie won the job over newcomers Nick Robinson and Ryan Glover.

“He’s the most experienced because he’s been in the system for a handful of years,” Priore said. “The two youngsters we brought in are doing phenomenal; they just have not picked up the system to where we like it going into Week 1.”

Priore said Robinson, a transfer from the University of Georgia, and Glover, a true freshman from Atlanta, may still get some reps, so look for them to possibly see the field against an Ohio Dominican team that the Quakers should beat handily.

In the meantime, Fischer-Colbrie will lean heavily on Solomon, a sturdy offensive line and a good receiving corps that includes juniors Christian Pearson, Steve Farrell and, of course, Watson.

“I think that we both know how good we can be and how much we can help our team and how good we can make the kids around us,” said Solomon of he and Watson. “And that’s what we try to do every day. We try to be as vocal as we possibly can, we try to lead by example all the time. I’m really excited to see what [Watson] does in his last year. It’s his finale, man. He’s been, in my opinion, the league’s MVP, or at least the offensive MVP, every year since he’s got here. And it’s just gonna be really exciting to see him in his senior year.”

Defense
The Quakers also boast a star playmaker on the other side of the football — Watson’s fellow co-captain Louis Vecchio. A big-time recruit who chose Penn over Stanford and other Pac-12 programs, Vecchio came into his own last season, earning first-team All-Ivy honors after leading the Quakers in sacks (5.5) and tackles for loss (10.5) and scoring a defensive touchdown in a huge home win over Harvard.

What does the senior defensive end think the defense has in store this season?

“We’re holding ourselves to a higher standard,” Vecchio said. “We’re looking to put in the work each day to make sure we live up to it. With a lot of vets coming back, we’re trying to raise the bar and it’ll show up on the field. We’re gonna be ready to play.”

In addition to Vecchio, the Quakers return seven other defensive starters, including linebacker Colton Moskal, a Syracuse transfer and last year’s leading tackler (89), and second team All-Ivy defensive back Sam Philippi.

But the unit must overcome the loss of cornerback Mason Williams, who led the Ivies in interceptions last year before transferring to Duke.

“I’m excited as ever and hopefully we can show the league where we deserve to be,” Vecchio said. “We want to go out on top.”

Special teams
Priore announced this week that junior Jack Soslow, a local native from Haverford School, won the placekicking job after serving as the kickoff specialist the last two seasons.

Senior Hunter Kelley returns at punter after leading the Ivies in punting average (42.7) last season.

Coaching
Priore could not have asked for a better start to his head coaching career, leading the Quakers to a piece of two straight league titles following two rare losing seasons under Al Bagnoli.

But Priore, a longtime Penn assistant under Bagnoli, has tried to forget all that as he prepared for a new season.

“I’ve been on the staff for 30 years and we’ve gone through some great times,” he said. “Sometimes you forget what gets you there and you just have to keep it revved up and keep it going. You try to keep the energy level up. There’s a process to everything.”

Player to watch
It’s worth a trip to Franklin Field play just to check out Watson, who may go down as one of the best football players in Ivy League history.

It will be interesting to see how he’ll fare catching passes from a new quarterback, but judging by how hard he worked in the offseason to reshape his body, his senior season may still be his best one yet.

“It’s always nice having Justin out there,” Priore said. “He’s so talented and such a humble kid. He’s the hardest-working kid on the field. He leads by example. If you need to get the ball into his hands, you can. He can make big plays happen.”

Watson may be good enough to not only play in the NFL but potentially even be an early-round draft pick. But after talking with Torgersen, he knows he can’t focus on that yet.

“His biggest thing is what’s gonna help me the most is winning a championship,” said Watson of his friend and former QB. “I really don’t want to leave the season with any regrets.”

Game to watch
Penn’s road to each of the last two titles went through Harvard as they upset the nationally ranked Crimson in a pair of thrillers.

Can the Quakers do it again when they travel to Harvard for the penultimate game of the season on Nov. 11 — a game sandwiched between big home games against rival Princeton and Cornell.

Prediction
This is a hard team to figure out. They have all the pieces, but a huge question mark at quarterback.

Although the Quakers want that outright crown, look for them to once again share the Ivy title after losing an early game and figuring things out down the stretch.