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Ray Priore made it clear that his team was willing to do whatever it took to control the ball against Villanova.

Photo: Helen Fetaw

Villanova’s star quarterback John Robertson didn’t play against Penn football on Thursday night. And it just didn’t matter.

That’s right. In the Quakers’ first victory against their Big 5 rival in over 100 years, the absence of the Wildcats’ top offensive threat — voted the top player in the Football Championship Subdivision last year — had no effect on the outcome of the game.

I can hear the cynics crying out now.

“Penn’s so-called ‘Upset of the Century’ wouldn’t have happened against a fully healthy ‘Nova squad,” they might say. “It was a fluke, in no way a reflection of a major change in the program.”

“A big win that deserves to reside comfortably next to an equally big asterisk.”

But this view completely ignores one of shocking result’s most essential facts: The Red and Blue didn’t only beat Villanova, they completely dominated them.

When Penn stepped onto the field against a team it had not beaten in 14 consecutive matchups, a team ranked in the top five in the country no less, it was the less physically talented team.

With or without Robertson, Villanova was visibly the superior group of athletes. But for the first time in the past couple seasons, the Quakers didn’t play down to their supposed limitations.

In the Red and Blue’s disappointing season-opening loss to Lehigh, they featured an offense largely predicated on lateral screen passes. But on their first drive on Thursday, they threw that playbook out the window and let junior quarterback Alek Toregersen air it out. The drive ended in seven points.

On its next possession, Penn found itself in Villanova’s red zone once again, this time facing a fourth-and-short situation. Penn coach Ray Priore decided to go for it, yet the squad turned it over on downs.

But from the Quakers, the message was clear: We are here to win the game.

“I told the kids last Sunday night, ‘We win the toss, we’re taking the football,’” Priore said. “‘And any time the ball is between the 40s, we’re going for it on fourth.’”

After going up 14-0 off the strength of two Justin Watson touchdowns, Penn’s defense went to work, matching the offense’s aggression series for series. The Quakers simultaneously prevented almost any big plays from the Wildcats and forced two important turnovers, including a fumble that was returned 90 yards for a touchdown by linebacker Donald Panciello.

In total, Penn controlled the ball for almost 40 minutes, running the ball almost three times as much as it passed. Its passing game, meanwhile, was vertical and aggressive.

Make no mistake about it: The final score was 24-13, but, save for a brief run in the second half, Villanova never came close.

Yes, Villanova quarterback Zach Bednarczyk struggled at times, but that was hardly the only problem for the Wildcats. They were dominated in all aspects of the game.

I will admit that I – along with just about any follower of the Red and Blue – didn’t see this coming. But how could I have?

When I entered the school as a freshman a little over two years ago, I expected to see Penn football play with the swagger of an Ivy champion, a program that has historically dominated its conference. And on Thursday night — for the first time in my time here — that’s exactly what I saw.

Of course, people will continue to rationalize this game as a fluke, parties involved certainly notwithstanding.

“Penn came in and played ... almost a perfect game,” Villanova coach Andy Talley said.

But quite frankly, that’s a lazy conclusion as well. It ignores the fact that on three separate occasions, Penn entered the Wildcats’ redzone and came away without scoring. For all of Penn’s offensive successes, the Quakers also left quite a few points on the field.

When it comes down to it, Penn didn’t pull off their biggest upset in recent memory because it was up against a battered opponent. And it didn’t win because it played a perfect game.

The Quakers pulled it off simply by playing with the attitude of a team that truly believed it could — and would — win.

No asterisk needed.

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