Penn football found itself in an unfamiliar spot on Friday night. And no, that spot isn’t only the winner’s column.
No — on Friday night, in their 34-20 home defeat of Yale, the Red and Blue found themselves squarely in the spotlight.
Primetime. Under the lights at Franklin Field. Nationally televised on NBC Sports Network.
That kind of spotlight.
Only a few short years ago, this wouldn’t have been all that noteworthy. It’s easy to forget, but it hasn’t been all that long since the Quakers were a legitimately dominant force within the Ivies. This is a program that put together consecutive undefeated seasons within the Ancient Eight only five years ago.
But in the world of collegiate athletics, five years can be an eternity. It’s at least enough time for the vast majority of Penn’s undergraduate student population to cycle through its four years and be replaced by an entirely new set of Red and Blue faithful.
And in Penn football’s case, it’s more than enough time for a coaching legend to retire and find himself a new job with a rival program, momentarily overshadowing much of the success that he had built over the past two-plus decades.
It’s no secret — memories of the Quakers' “glory days” are fading fast, especially amongst the school’s student population.
And with these memories, attendance at home games has faded accordingly. Not only in terms of numbers, but also in terms of enthusiasm and fandom.
It may be an absurd thing to say about one of Penn’s indisputably marquee programs, but over the last year or so, the Quakers have operated under the radar.
Out of the spotlight.
At least when it comes to their play on the field, that is. Al Bagnoli’s departure has certainly brought a lot of attention to the program as a whole, in some sense, but it seems to have actually taken attention away from the team’s play on the field.
And it’s shown in the team’s play. Whereas last year’s Red and Blue squad seemed to crack under the expectations of potentially contending for an Ivy League title, this team has done the exact opposite.
When the Quakers have gotten their back pressed up against the wall, they have actually played looser. And better.
Think back to their breakout win on the road against perennial powerhouse Villanova. Despite totally controlling possession for the majority of the game, Penn found itself with its back against the wall with a slim lead and the Wildcats driving. How did they respond? With a 90-yard fumble return for a touchdown from linebacker Donald Panciello.
And think about the most recent contest against the Bulldogs. Down 10-0 early, Penn easily could have let the game get out of hand. Last year’s team almost certainly would have.
Instead, Priore’s squad responded with some of its most aggressive play of the year, highlighted by two forced turnovers on the defensive side of the ball by the red-hot Tyler Drake.
There’s no doubt that the team has exceeded almost all expectations heading into the season. Personally, I thought the Quakers would be lucky to get three wins over the course of 10 games.
Through six, they have already matched that projection. And with four games remaining and several of their toughest contests in the rearview mirror, they look primed to blow it out of the water.
But all of the success the team has had this year has come without the burden of expectations. Sure, its matchups with Villanova and Yale were both “big games,” at least superficially, but it wasn’t expected to win either.
Moving forward, that’s simply not going to be the case. With the resume it has built throughout the season, Penn could very reasonably enter the majority of its remaining games as favorites.
Of course, that’s an enviable position to a certain extent, but it also adds to the pressure the team will face moving forward.
Thus far, the Quakers have proven to be more than capable of handling pressure in game situations. But the kind of pressure that they will face on Homecoming, as favorites, potentially in front of 15,000 Red and Blue faithful is a different ballgame entirely.
With its streak of exceptional play, the once mighty program has defied expectations, and it hasn’t gone unnoticed. After operating in the shadows of the campus for nearly two years, Penn football has finally regained the attention of the Penn community.
But keeping it is the hard part.
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