Penn football begins its quest for another Ivy title
September 19, 2013, 4:36 pm · Updated September 19, 2013, 10:53 pm·
The hardest thing for a team to do in any sport is repeat as champions.
When a team captures the ultimate glory of a championship, it acquires a target on its back representing the transformation from the hunter to the hunted. The champion ends up facing obstacles that few teams are strong enough to overcome once, let alone a second time.
However, after months of waiting, the Penn football team is ready to accept these challenges.
For the first time since its season-ending victory over Cornell that clinched the Ivy League title outright, the Quakers (0-0) return to the field this weekend as they welcome in-state rival Lafayette to Franklin Field.
“We’re anxious, we’re excited and it’s been a long preseason,” coach Al Bagnoli said. “Our preseason work has been extensive, we’re anxious to see our kids and see what they have, and we’re looking forward to finally going against somebody else.”
The victory over the Big Red last November allowed for the Red and Blue to clinch its third Ivy League title in four years. It marks the fourth time in conference history that a team has won three Ancient Eight championships in a four year span, and the second time Penn has accomplished the feat.
Now, Penn looks to become the first team in conference history to win four titles in five years. The team’s quest for another repeat gets underway with a familiar opponent.
A season ago, the Quakers kicked off their 2012 campaign with a road test against the Leopards (0-2). Expectations were low for a Penn team that was coming off a third-place finish in the Ivies in 2011.
The Red and Blue turned the ball over eight times, five of which were interceptions thrown by senior starting quarterback Billy Ragone. Despite the sloppy play, Penn played hard and nearly escaped with a victory before falling by a touchdown, 28-21.
“For us, this year’s game is a matter of execution,” Bagnoli said. “We obviously have to protect the football because we play our best football when we win the turnover battle.”
“Turnovers are the ultimate enemy of any offense, and last year really just saw the turnovers pile up one after the other,” Ragone said. “It wasn’t a great day for us as an offense, but we’ve done a good job this preseason protecting the football, and we’re looking to carry that over to this weekend.”
The circumstances surrounding this year’s Penn team could not be any more different than those from 12 months ago.
Whereas last year’s Quakers’ featured a group of young players with relatively little experience, the 2013 team is an accomplished bunch, one with an incredible amount of depth and live game action.
“We were picked by the media to finish first in the Ivy League this year,” Ragone said. “And I think that having those kinds of expectations and added pressure is a good thing because it pushes all of us to play our best every day.”
The Quakers return a plethora of key players from last year’s championship team, including Ragone, senior wide receiver Connor Scott and junior linebacker Dan Davis.
Because so many players saw game action a year ago and acquired valuable experience, the team’s depth makes replacing graduated veterans like defensive lineman Brandon Copeland and linebacker Steve Lias much easier.
“Our depth looks great this season,” senior safety Evan Jackson said. “Replacing guys like Copeland and Lias isn’t easy, but we trust that their replacements will get the job done.”
Though the Leopards have had a rough beginning to their season, they’ve certainly had the upper hand against Penn of late. Including last year’s 28-21 victory over the eventual Ivy champs, Lafayette has taken five of its past six from the Quakers, including three in a row.
Lafayette senior wide receiver Mark Ross ranks first on the school’s list in all time receiving touchdowns, and sixth in receiving yards.
Ross, combined with junior quarterback Zack Zweizig, may give Penn’s defense some trouble, especially if the Leopards’ offensive line can come through against a young Quakers defensive front.
“[Lafayette] always has an explosive offense,” Jackson said. “They have a big offensive line and some really good receivers, so we’re not expecting too much to be different from last season, but we want to be prepared for their approach to the game.”
Like his coach before him, Ragone echoed the sentiment that the Quakers are tired of practicing and talking about last season. It’s clear that Penn is ready to finally let its play do the talking.
“There are going to be some nerves and some anxiousness, but everyone is excited to finally get going. It’s been a long off-season, and we’re ready to see somebody else for a change.”