2011 was a hell of a year. It was the Year of the Protest, the Year of the Entrepreneur, and most importantly, the Year of the Quarterback in the Ivy League.
All eight Ivies returned a starter under center last season, resulting in a more aerially explosive Ancient Eight than we’re used to. Five Ivies averaged over 200 passing yards per game in 2011, after just two teams reached that mark in 2009. Three teams achieved a pass efficiency rating over 130 last year after just two teams had reached that mark in the previous three seasons combined.
But Penn quarterback Billy Ragone is one of the biggest reasons why the Year of the Quarterback didn’t translate into a third straight Ivy crown for Penn.
Ragone did have his moments. His gutsy comebacks against Yale and Dartmouth solidified his status as a winner who doesn’t need to be a prototypical pocket passer to be effective. He has amassed an 11-3 Ivy record as a starter, and none of his peers have run or thrown more in the clutch during the past two seasons.
But Ragone’s intangibles weren’t enough to avoid a series of letdowns that shook the confidence of Quakers fans and coaches alike last year.
He looked sluggish and downright confused at times in the first two games of the season, throwing a combined four interceptions in losses to Lafayette and Villanova. Against Brown, he registered just six completions in 15 attempts, blowing the game’s final drive and Penn’s 18-game Ivy winning streak on his third pick of the rainy day.
And with the Ivy championship on the line at Harvard, coach Al Bagnoli and offensive coordinator Jon McLaughlin didn’t turn Ragone loose. Instead, they chose to run the ball 30 times against the conference’s top-ranked rushing defense for a woeful 0.8 yards per carry.
It doesn’t matter that Ragone more than doubled his attempts and completions from 2010. What matters is he threw as many interceptions as touchdowns and withered in the most crucial moments of the season, the moments where only his arm could save the Quakers.
“Everything always starts with me in terms of decision-making,” Ragone said. “I have to play more consistently, and as I do, the offense will play more consistently.”
The intangibles that led to varying results for Ragone last year in Ivy play will have to hold up better in 2012, because the Year of the Quarterback has given way to the League of the Quarterback.
Gunslinger Jeff Mathews returns to Cornell as a junior after ranking third nationally in the Football Championship Subdivision in passing yards per game and pass efficiency. Coach Pete Mangurian’s return to Columbia after helming Cornell from 1998 through 2000 signals a commitment to aerial football for the Lions. And junior Colton Chapple returns for Harvard after saving the Crimson’s season as a backup and throwing 12 touchdowns in only four starts last year.
“It used to be a smashmouth league — who could run the ball the best, control the line of scrimmage,” Ragone said. “And now the Ivy League has better receivers, better throwers, so it’s become more of an aerial attack. I think that this year we’ve been really working on an aerial attack and we have great receivers. Our offensive line is coming back, they’re more experienced. We’re excited to get into that mindset and take advantage of that.”
Now, of course Ragone won’t be Funning n’ Gunning his way to glory any time soon. Brandon Colavita, Jeff Jack and Lyle Marsh all return and comprise a threesome of running backs that has accounted for nearly 3,000 career rushing yards. With that much experience in the backfield, Ragone isn’t the only star of the show.
But he’s still the biggest. Penn has no chance at Ivy vengeance if Ragone can’t air it out on a championship level down the stretch.
Harvard’s secondary should be its Achilles heel this fall. The defending champs allowed 232.2 yards per game through the air last year and have since graduated first-team All-Ivy cornerback Matthew Hanson and three-year defensive back starter Dan Minamide.
Now, the table is set for Ragone. He’s got the weapons. He’s got the matchups.
All he has to do is dig in.
And since the wealth of quarterback talent among Penn’s biggest rivals is here to stay, the Year of the Bounceback starts with him.
MIKE TONY is a junior english and history major from Uniontown, Pa. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.