For the first time in seven years, Penn and Princeton meet on the football field with both teams’ title hopes on the line.
The Quakers are locked in a three-way tie for first place in the league with Princeton and Harvard, and the outcome of Saturday’s game will determine how the final stretch of the season plays out.
Since Princeton (4-3, 3-1 Ivy) has already beaten Harvard (6-1, 3-1), a win over both the Tigers and the Crimson would guarantee the Quakers at least a share of the Ivy crown. A loss to Princeton would effectively knock the Quakers out of contention for first.
And unlike in recent years, when the Quakers have dominated the Tigers, this season’s Princeton squad poses a serious threat to Penn.
The Quakers (3-4, 3-1) have won five straight against their archrivals and all but two of the last 16 meetings between the two teams. The current seniors, in particular, have had tremendous success against Princeton, winning by a combined score of 131-26 over the last three games and outscoring the Tigers by 28 or more points in each of those matchups.
But things are different this year, and quarterback Billy Ragone said the team is “in no way taking this game lightly.”
While the 2011 Tigers finished 1-6 in the Ivy League, the 2012 Tigers want to put that season far, far behind them. Their 4-3 record this year, though not sterling, is a major step forward. They shut out Brown, a team that Penn snuck past with a dramatic fourth-quarter drive, and stunned Harvard — the overwhelming favorite going into the season — 39-34.
“They’re playing with confidence, and that confidence stems from success,” Penn coach Al Bagnoli said. “They have every reason to feel good about themselves based on the teams they’ve played and how well they’ve done.”
The Red and Blue know all of this, and they know this is no time to rely on history of great performances to see them through. But if there’s one thing the Quakers understand, Ragone said, it’s pressure.
“I think that’s really been the motto of the season,” he said. “We’ve been a really resilient group. We haven’t been able to blow anybody out yet, and I’d like to take a knee at the end of the game instead of kicking a field goal, but our group responds really well in pressure situations and we’ve done well in the fourth quarter, and that’s been the difference in a lot of games.”
Those fourth-quarter drives will be especially important against a team that has scored 75 total fourth-quarter points. The Tigers also owe 14 of their 23 total touchdowns to their ground game. Senior running back Akil Sharp and tailback Will Powers have combined for 496 rushing yards and six touchdowns this season.
The Quakers, however, are coming off a game in which they allowed just 83 yards rushing, successfully shutting down Brown’s running game. Senior defensive lineman Taylor Brown said this was due in large part to being “pissed off” after losing badly to Yale the week before.
“We played with some anger and we had a great game plan going into the Brown game, we really started executing and doing our jobs from the first string to the third string.” Brown said.
Brown added that seeing a no-huddle offense at Yale helped the defense’s preparation for Princeton.
The Quakers, too, may have difficulty with their running game, given that Ragone sees the Tigers’ defensive line as one of the toughest in the league.
“But their secondary is probably something we can take advantage of,” he said. “We threw the ball well last week, and Princeton’s got a young group back there, so we may have some similar success that way.”
The Quakers’ renewed confidence couldn’t come at a better time because it takes a big head to wear the Ivy crown.