In the weeks leading up to Penn football’s upcoming matchup against Columbia, the game has been framed in countless ways.
One of the first winnable games of the season for the Quakers. Former coach Al Bagnoli’s reckoning. The game circled on everyone’s calendar.
Or as Penn coach Ray Priore puts it: “What game?”
This weekend, the Red and Blue (1-3, 0-1 Ivy) will travel to New York for their highly anticipated contest against the Lions (1-3, 0-1), the team’s first chance to take on Bagnoli since he left town last year.
And despite Priore’s best efforts, however humorous, to downplay the matchup, there’s no denying its significance. In fact, the storylines surrounding the weekend are almost too many to count.
First off, the Lions enter the matchup coming off of their first win since 2012, a 26-3 victory over a lowly Wagner squad last week.
No doubt, the win did not come over a powerhouse program the caliber of Villanova, which the Quakers beat soundly earlier in the season. But nonetheless, the Lions have shown dramatic signs of improvement all year, and Penn is not about to overlook them.
“They’re playing power football,” said senior captain Tyler Drake, who had four sacks last weekend against Fordham. “It’s [something] we haven’t seen yet.”
Back in Philly, the matchup also finds a team in flux.
In their four games this season, the Quakers have been wildly inconsistent, playing strong football in three of their eight halves of play while frankly looking more like the inept Columbia teams of years past in the other five.
From Priore’s point of view, these drastic fluctuations have largely been a function of the team’s mental approach to the game.
“It’s how you deal with success and how you deal with adversity,” he said, diagnosing the cause of his team’s inconsistent play.
Much like the Lions, the Quakers have operated at their best this year when they’ve been able to utilize their ground game on offense and pressure the quarterback on defense, and they will need to put themselves in a position to do just that by balancing discipline and aggression.
“We’re definitely going to be getting after the quarterback in every way possible,” Drake said. “Especially if we stop them on first and second down, they’re gonna be in passing situations.
“And that’s when I like to let loose.”
Of course, this is easier said than done, and Priore has continued to preach the importance of getting “the little things” right.
“If you look at it, if the right guard takes a wrong step, it’s a broken play,” he said.
But the storylines don’t end with the two teams on the field. Saturday also features the first matchup between Bagnoli and his former team, a fact that Priore — who himself calls Bagnoli a “friend and mentor” — has had to come to terms with.
However, for the Quakers to focus on the minute aspects of their game like Priore suggests, they will have to paradoxically ignore the biggest storyline of them all.
“I think the focus is really simple,” Priore said. “I want our kids to focus in on ourselves.
“Yes, it is a game with coach [Bagnoli] there. … The attention to detail is what wins.”
And of course, the distractions go both ways.
“When I look across the field, it’ll just be [Bagnoli],” Priore noted. “Him looking at Penn is the other side of it.”
So ultimately, what does that leave? Two teams looking to define themselves as winning programs and a dramatic storyline that would make Scorcese blush, set to reach its dramatic conclusion in the city that never sleeps.
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