No two Ivy football teams have endured more nailbiters than Penn and Princeton the last two seasons, so one had every reason to believe Saturday’s matchup between these two archrivals with the top spot in the conference on the line would go down to the wire.
So who knew that the Quakers’ Homecoming matchup at Franklin Field would end with such an anticlimactic thud?
Penn looked poised to keep up with Princeton’s potent attack until the Tigers methodically pulled away as the second half progressed, 38-26. The game marks Penn’s first loss in the series since 2006 and is also Penn’s first home loss to Princeton since 2005’s Homecoming.
Leading the way for the Tigers was Princeton quarterback Quinn Epperly, who completed 32 of 45 passes for 268 yards and also rushed for 53 yards and 13 carries. The Quakers suffered six turnovers on the afternoon, including two interceptions from senior quarterback Billy Ragone.
“It’s a tough pill to swallow for me, [fellow fifth-year seniors] Sammy [Chwarzynski] and Brandon [Colavita], hoping to come back and add one more,” Ragone said about Penn’s pursuit of a fourth outright Ivy title in five seasons. “Obviously we didn’t get it done.”
“If anything bothers me, it’s just we made a lot of mistakes,” Penn coach Al Bagnoli said. “I thought our effort was great today. I can sleep very sound knowing how hard our kids played.”
Penn (4-4, 3-2 Ivy) had displayed a penchant for starting games slowly heading into Saturday’s collision with Princeton (7-1, 5-0), but the Quakers dominated the first quarter and then some. The Tigers struggled with poor field position for their first three drives, the last of which resulted in a safety after Princeton committed a holding penalty in the end zone with 8:37 left in the opening period.
After a sack of Ragone by Princeton defensive back Elijah Mitchell knocked Penn out of field goal range midway through the first, the Quakers’ defense took revenge. Chwarzynski tipped a pass from Epperly at point blank range, caught it himself and rumbled 61 yards for a defensive touchdown that gave the Quakers a 9-0 cushion with 1:37 left to go in the first quarter.
And the Quakers kept rolling. Junior running back Kyle Wilcox, facing the school that rejected him four years earlier, notched a six-yard touchdown jaunt of his own, capping off a crisp three-play, 54-yard drive led by senior quarterback Ryan Becker early in the second quarter. It was 16-0 Penn and a perfect Homecoming scene.
“Obviously we were happy to be up 16. We just put them into position to score too many times … We gave them six extra possessions,” Ragone said.
So Princeton did what Princeton always does – come back.
Having come back all the way from a 29-point fourth-quarter deficit against Harvard a year ago and a 17-0 hole at Brown earlier this season, the Tigers got to work again.
Epperly, having set the NCAA record for consecutive completed passes the previous week against Cornell, engineered a methodical eight-play, 71-yard drive in 2:55 to cut Penn’s lead to 16-8 after a two-point conversion.
After tacking on a field goal, Princeton saw Penn’s improbable pick six and raised it another, as Princeton’s Mitchell reeled off a 59-yard touchdown return to give the Tigers a 17-16 lead with 1:24 left in the half after the Tigers’ second two-point try of the afternoon failed.
Penn wouldn’t budge that easily, though. Ragone then promptly marched the Quakers 72 yards in just 1:06, connecting with senior wideout Ryan Mitchell for a 34-yard touchdown strike with just 12 seconds remaining in the half. At halftime, Penn clung to a 23-17 advantage.
Which didn’t last. A quarterback keeper touchdown by Epperly opened up the second half scoring and gave Princeton a 24-23 lead that it wouldn’t surrender again.
“It really feels great,” senior Elijah Mitchell said with a smile about beating Penn for the first time. “I was here in coach Surace’s year … and felt a pretty good beating that year [when Penn trounced Princeton, 52-10]. It feels wonderful.”
With 13:10 to go in the fourth quarter, Epperly scored again on the ground, opening up an eight-point advantage, capping off another methodical drive for Princeton, this one 62 yards in 15 plays.
The Tigers tacked on another touchdown — a 14-yard scoring catch by Princeton wide receiver Connor Kelley — with 4:45 remaining to clinch the win.
Penn will try to salvage its season after two straight losses at Harvard next Saturday.