When I arrived on campus a year ago, football season was my first major introduction to Penn Athletics.
And it didn’t make a very good impression. The team sputtered to a 2-8 record, surrendering nearly 40 points per game while failing to produce much of anything on offense. We at The Daily Pennsylvanian were forced to retreat into a nauseating cycle of pessimistic game previews, repetitive recaps and depressing columns as we covered the underachieving squad.
And coming into 2015, things were shaping up to be even worse. Coach Al Bagnoli — his final season having been more of a funeral dirge than an exercise in cheery nostalgia — was not only gone after 23 seasons, but had promptly un-retired in favor of a job at Columbia. Meanwhile, Ray Priore, who had been the coordinator of that woeful 2014 defense, was set to take Bagnoli’s place.
Like I said, to this point, Penn football had not exactly impressed me.
This fall, on the last morning of summer before classes began, my fellow DP writers and I dragged ourselves out of bed to attend the team’s 2015 Media Day and conduct interviews with players and staff. When asked what was different with this year’s squad, the players were nearly unanimous in their response: The culture.
‘The culture? That’s it?,’ I thought. After all, the team needed to change a whole lot more than its culture. That response, to me, sounded like a cop-out answer from an alreadyweak team that had just lost its coach, two best receivers (Spencer Kulcsar and Conner Scott) and defensive captain (Dan Davis).
So, when I sat down to interview Priore in the week following the Quakers’ season-opening 42-21 drubbing at the hands of Lehigh, I was not exactly optimistic in my questioning when it came to the next weekend’s matchup, another expected beatdown at the hands of Villanova.
“We’re going to stick to the plan,” Priore told me with a knowing smile. “We’re going to get better every day.”
Apparently, the Quakers got a lot better that day. They went to Villanova and shocked the Wildcats 24-13, their first victory over their cross-city rivals since 1911.
And then three weeks later, they beat Columbia.
And then Yale.
And then Brown.
And then Princeton.
And last weekend, the Quakers, no longer docile, finished their coup d’état of the Ivy League, knocking off heavily favored Harvard in Boston, dealing the Crimson their first loss since 2013.
That means that this weekend, with a victory over lowly 1-8 Cornell, the Red and Blue will be Ivy League Champions.
Feel free to take a second to wrap your brain around that.
This year, the Quakers have given a resounding answer to that question asked on Media Day.
For starters, sophomore receiver Justin Watson has been a difference this season. He’s averaged over 100 yards receiving per game (most of which, it feels like, have come in clutch moments) and could stake a serious claim to Ivy League Offensive Player of the Year with a big game on Saturday.
Senior linebacker Tyler Drake has been a difference this season. He’s notched 73 tackles, 8.5 sacks, two interceptions and four forced fumbles through the first nine games. If he doesn’t win Ivy Defensive Player of the Year, it would be a downright travesty.
But the biggest difference this season has been Priore. Rather than maintain the status quo, he has flipped it on its side, installing entirely new systems on both sides of the ball — offensive coordinator John Reagan and defensive coordinator Bob Benson, both in their first years, also deserve ample credit — while providing a steady, confident presence from the team’s top job.
And after all of the rollover and drama surrounding the team over the last calendar year, the Quakers stand one win away from an Ivy League title.
I bet a win would do wonders for team culture.
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