After Penn football’s week two victory against fourth-ranked Villanova, my colleague Colin Henderson made a bold statement: The Quakers’ win was no fluke.
Five games into the season, with the Red and Blue sitting at 2-3 heading into Friday’s game against Yale, I still didn’t know what to make of that claim.
I was at the season-opening blowout loss to Lehigh, and I criticized the team for returning to old, mediocre offensive tendencies. Penn then responded with “the upset of a century” against the Wildcats, only to be silenced once again 10 days later, this time by Dartmouth.
After three weeks, I was convinced the win over the Wildcats was just a fluke and nothing more.
Then the Red and Blue put together a miraculous comeback against then-No. 12 Fordham. Sure, they lost on a last-second field goal, but the Quakers showed both that they had the talent to hang with the nation’s best and that they had the grit they lacked for much of last season.
Following the spanking of Al Bagnoli’s Columbia squad last weekend, the narrative shifted away from Penn’s matchup with its former coach. Instead, the focus was squarely on the breakout games of freshman stars, the prospect of the program turning a corner and what it would take to stifle a Yale team that beat the Quakers by 22 in 2014.
So, entering week six, it seemed Penn had another shot to prove to all the haters (including myself) that it wasn’t succeeding because of flukes, lucky bounces or injury-plagued opponents.
Consider the job done.
On Friday night, the Red and Blue dismantled the Bulldogs thanks to monster performances by Christian Pearson, Tyler Drake and Tre Solomon. In doing so, Penn legitimized itself as not only a complete football team, but as a threat to finish near the top of the Ivy League.
When Yale went up 10-0, the Quakers didn’t cave. Instead, Alek Torgersen went into beast mode and threw three second-quarter scores to capture the lead going into the half.
When the Bulldogs cut the Penn lead to seven as the third quarter ended, the Red and Blue went 97 yards down the field, emphatically telling Yale it wouldn’t be putting together yet another comeback win this season.
Coach Ray Priore has warned that his squad still is not performing at the elite level of which he thinks they are capable. But based off the last three games, the Quakers must be coming pretty damn close to executing at their utmost potential.
Pearson caught two touchdowns to continue his emergence as a potent downfield weapon. Solomon had a second straight game with two touchdowns and is ripping off jukes and spin moves at a ridiculous rate for someone who tore his ACL just 12 months ago.
Drake is forcing turnovers at will and freshmen Mason Williams and Sam Philippi appear to have solved the Quakers’ problems in the secondary.
Penn now sits with three wins and three losses, a winning record in conference play and a chance to move over .500 for the first time since November 2013, before it lost consecutive games to Brown, Princeton, Harvard and Cornell (yes Cornell) to end a once promising season.
The Red and Blue face the exact same schedule to close out their 2015 campaign. If they are to complete the transformation, they cannot falter down the stretch as they did two seasons ago.
This team has shown it has talent, resolve and fortitude. The only question is whether this is the year Penn springboards back to the top of the Ivy League standings or if it is still one year away from being a dominant team every week.
The answer will come over the next four games.
Wins against Brown, Princeton and Cornell — a realistic proposition — will be necessary for the Quakers to claim that this season was not just a turning point, but the beginning of a new era of relevance.
And if they pull off a win against Harvard? Well, you can stop talking about relevance and start throwing around the ‘title-contender’ label.
Villanova was no fluke. Penn is back. Penn is here to stay. Priore is the right man to lead the team, and the well of young playmakers on both sides of the ball is promising, to say the least.
An Ivy League championship is coming to Philadelphia soon. Could this be the year?
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