What do you get when you mix a consistent run game, a suddenly imposing defense and a healthy dose of play-action?
You give a team its identity back. Oh, and you get a share of the Ivy League title.
Harvard won the opening coin toss, but after that not much more would go right for the Crimson at Franklin Field. The Quakers scored on their opening drive and never trailed in a 30-21 victory to claim their 16th Ivy championship in school history.
“I challenged the kids and I told them all week long, we’d have to play our best game to give ourselves a realistic chance,” coach Al Bagnoli said. “I thought today they were as determined as they’ve been the whole season. They were just not going to be denied.”
The Red and Blue (5-4, 5-1 Ivy) resembled the Penn teams of yore with an effective running game and a shutdown defense — the bread and butter of the 2009 and 2010 championship teams.
Senior running back Lyle Marsh had his second straight big week, rushing for 130 yards on 27 carries. His longest carry went for more yards, 47, than Harvard had been allowing per game coming into the contest — 43.4. Quarterback Billy Ragone also gained 95 yards in just three quarters.
Tempering the excitement of the win over the Crimson (7-2, 4-2) was the loss of Ragone to a gruesome ankle injury. On the final play of the third quarter, Ragone was brought down awkwardly and immediately began to writhe in pain. Trainers rushed to the field and applied an air cast to his dislocated ankle.
After he was carted off, backup senior quarterback Andrew Holland finished the drive with a back-of-the-end-zone touchdown pass to sophomore Mitch King, who made a phenomenal grab to snatch the ball away from a Harvard defender and give Penn its first two-possession lead of the game, 28-14.
Ragone would return, not to the field, but to the sideline — still seated, pads on, in the cart that drove him off. It backed up to the sideline so that the rear was facing the field and Quakers on the sideline parted so the injured quarterback could watch his team. It was a poignant moment that brought the Quakers’ emotions to a high boil, if they weren’t there already.
“It just meant so much for him to come back out of the locker room and be on the field with us,” Marsh said. “I’ve been there and had a couple of gruesome injuries, and to have that kind of courage to come back out there and be a part of the team to win the championship, that meant a lot to us.”
If the offense exceeded expectations in this game, it was the defense that stole the show. Like the offense, the defense set the tone for the game early, forcing a three-and-out that included a violent sack of Harvard quarterback Colton Chapple by senior captain Brandon Copeland that had the Penn sideline roaring.
The secondary picked off Chapple twice, once each by junior Dan Wilk and senior David Twamley.
After Harvard scored to trim Penn’s lead to 28-21 on its ensuing drive, the Quakers’ defense held the Crimson to a combined 15 yards on their last three drives.
Then, it was the defense putting the game away on Harvard’s final possession when the Crimson got the ball back at their own 11-yard line, down seven, with 2:29 remaining.
“As we walked on the field, I was just screaming, ‘Attack, attack, attack,’” Copeland said of the moment.
On first down, sophomore linebacker Dan Davis brought down Chapple for a loss of one. On second down, sophomore Ferooz Yacoobi sacked Chapple as he looked downfield. On third down, who else but Copeland, the solo senior captain, slammed Chapple to end zone turf for a safety, effectively ending the game.
An onside kick recovery and three kneel-downs later and Penn guaranteed its share of the Ivy League title.
“I just can’t say enough about our kids, the character of our kids, the resolve of our kids,” Bagnoli said. “They’ve been challenged all week, and I’m not sure how many people really gave them a chance in this game.”
This is a team that some picked to finish in the middle of the Ivy League, a possibility that seemed much more likely after a loss to a mediocre Yale team.
“We found our identity at the right time,” Bagnoli said. “And that was my fault. That Yale game, I could kick myself.”
The Quakers weren’t playing Quakers football.
“About three weeks ago, I said, ‘We’ve got to get back to our identity,’” Bagnoli said. “Ever since then, we’ve gotten a little bit closer to playing the way we are structured to play with tight ends, fullbacks and downhill running and run the quarterback. We’re going to change and tilt field position and get after you a little bit on defense. I think today was the culmination of what we started three weeks ago.”
Dethroned last season after two back-to-back Ivy titles, the Quakers once again sit atop the Ancient Eight. The only thing that remains to be seen is whether they’ll have to share or if they’ll sit alone on a throne that the senior class has gotten to know quite well.