When Penn football marched onto the field in Bethlehem, Pa., on Sept. 19, it did not resemble Ray Priore’s team that was crowned Ivy League champions on Saturday.
Against Lehigh, the Quakers' game plan, personnel and style of play were eerily reminiscent of those that plagued Al Bagnoli’s 2014 squad. Defensive breakdowns, a lack of risk-taking on offense and the weight of playing from behind were reminders of the 2-8 season that the Red and Blue had just endured.
With a new coaching staff and new energy surrounding the team, it was disappointing to see this flashback to mediocrity. But, after 23 years under one leader, perhaps the early part of the season did not exemplify a lack of change but rather the growing pains of rebranding and reinvigorating a struggling program.
The season began with questions about Bagnoli, the Columbia matchup, Priore’s ability to make the transition from coordinator to head coach and the team’s overall direction. However, by midseason, Priore successfully made those storylines irrelevant and shifted the focus to his team, its performance and its potential.
Before the Dartmouth game in early October, amidst the elation following the Villanova victory, Priore explained to me how he prepared to tackle the autumn campaign.
“I know everyone looks at it, and it’s a long history,” he said of the comparisons between his 2015 team and previous Penn squads. “We look at it in that small little chamber which is called the season, which is 10 weeks. And we just try to build, build and build.”
Now, looking back on this year as a whole, it’s clear that the Quakers’ ascension to greatness was built slowly, piece by piece. While at times the process took one step back before taking two leaps forward, no one quit.
Naming the charismatic Priore as Bagnoli’s successor in April 2014 was the first step forward. Priore then hiring coordinators John Reagan and Bob Benson — outsiders who had experience turning around programs and being apart of successful teams — was the next.
The Lehigh loss set the Quakers back, and, while the Villanova win was immaculate, the Dartmouth defeat appeared to be a fall back to reality.
With the team sitting at 1-3 overall, no one looked at the rest of the Red and Blue’s schedule and said, “this team will win the Ivy League title.”
Yet suddenly, almost overnight, the Quakers reached a point where their victories didn’t even feel like upsets.
First, the Red and Blue silenced Bagnoli and Columbia. Then they thrashed Yale and went on the road to beat Brown on Halloween.
By finding a way to grind in October, the Quakers found themselves fighting for a championship — and not simply their survival — in the culminating weeks of the season.
Looking across the postgame press conference table towards Priore, Tyler Drake, Alek Torgersen and Donald Panciello after Penn’s thrilling overtime win against Princeton, there was no doubting the intentions of this team.
“All our guys work way too hard for our season to end right there,” Panciello said about his field goal block at the end of regulation. “So I just had to do it for everybody else.”
As a result of the trust they had built with each other, the Quakers headed into the annual matchup with Harvard looking like a team that couldn’t lose. And when they shut out the Crimson in the second half, the story was all but sealed: Cornell was the final hurdle to clinching a championship.
Within their own tiny chamber, Priore and his team played hard-nosed football with purpose. Every contest over the season’s last six weeks was a must-win game and each game was won.
Priore continually stressed that he wanted to play “meaningful games in November,” something that had been foreign in West Philadelphia during the final years of the Bagnoli regime.
“You never know when you’re going be back on that stage,” Drake said after the Princeton win while reflecting on the Ivy title from his freshman year.
Similarly, Dan Connaughton said he told his peers before the season that they had a chance to do something special.
It took a while for outsiders to share that thought with the senior defensive lineman. A special season wasn’t on my radar prior to the Yale victory. But after three quarters against Harvard, I finally saw what Connaughton saw before the season even began.
If Penn had just gone sideways this season, few would have blamed Priore given the circumstances following last year’s debacle. But that wasn’t the plan. This team blocked punts, snagged interceptions, threw bombs down the field and ran the ball down opponent’s throats.
So, hats off to Ray Priore for finding a way to build a program and find a way to win.
Surely, no one will doubt them again next year.
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