Saturday’s game at Franklin Field was not a competition. It wasn’t even a celebration.
It was a coronation.
As Penn football took the field this weekend, it didn’t matter that the squad would likely have to share the Ivy League title with two other teams. It didn’t matter that the Quakers had lost three of their first four contests of 2015. It didn’t matter that the Red and Blue earned a sixth-place finish in the conference’s preseason media poll.
That’s because, with a 34-21 victory over Cornell on Saturday, Penn proved that it was the best team in the Ancient Eight outright. And it only took seven minutes.
From far away, it’s easy to see why the Quakers may seem like the outsider among the conference’s trio of champions. After all, Harvard has won 23 of its last 24 games — and now, three consecutive titles. Dartmouth’s only loss was to the Crimson, and the Big Green slaughtered Penn in Philadelphia in early October.
Add in the Quakers’ other two losses and it’s easy to assume coach Ray Priore’s squad lucked its way into the Ancient Eight crown.
But if one digs deeper, it’s actually not even close: Penn is better than Harvard. Penn is better than Dartmouth. Penn is the best team in the Ivy League. And it has a share of the title to show for it.
It’s not uncommon to hear coaches discuss what they want to see out of their teams. Cover a squad for long enough and one distinct generality becomes abundantly clear: Every coach wants to see their team improve from week to week over the course of a season.
It’s a cliche. But in a year in which the Quakers defied conventional wisdom at almost every turn, this cliche actually fits.
For 10 weeks, the 2015 version of Penn football was an evolving organism, adapting to the different situations presented by each opponent while growing as a program in the process. In so few ways do the Quakers mirror how they looked in losing by 21 points in two of their first three games.
From early October onward, Priore’s coaching staff and the Red and Blue at large made the necessary changes in order to mold a contender. They opened up the playbook. They turned senior linebacker Tyler Drake loose. They utilized the conference’s best offensive weapon not playing quarterback — sophomore wide receiver Justin Watson — to his fullest potential.
That progression wasn’t seen from Harvard and Dartmouth.
But over the final six quarters of its season, Penn hit its stride and exemplified that evolution. In ending the Crimson’s 22-game winning streak, the Quakers pitched a second-half shutout against a team that led the Ivy League with 36.4 points and 474 yards per game. In clinching the 17th title in program history, the Red and Blue went up 20-0 on the Big Red in just under half a quarter.
If Penn needed to score 70 points to win on Saturday, it felt like it could. If the Quakers absolutely had to pitch a shutout, well ... that also seemed feasible.
With the Red and Blue up by three scores, the end result was written: Ivy champs once again. But as much as one wanted to see the post-game celebration, the game was so beautiful, the narrative was so sweet and the setting was so perfect that it was hard not to wish for that perfect start to last forever.
Because Saturday’s first quarter was a poetic one. Watson showed exactly how good he is, moving over 1,000 yards receiving on the season. The Quakers’ defense, one that has been so dominant in 2015, registered an enormous hit on Cornell’s quarterback on the Big Red’s first offensive play, forcing a pick. And senior tight end Ryan O’Malley, who caught a touchdown when the Red and Blue clinched the 2012 title against Harvard, repeated that feat to make it 13-0.
But in the end, the game went on. Cornell threatened in the second quarter, cutting it to 20-7 before Lonnie Tuff’s Marcus Allen-esque return on the ensuing kickoff put any fears of a collapse to bed. Up 27-7 at half, Penn’s title was in the bag.
The Ivy League championship trophy was not at Franklin Field on Saturday. But it didn’t matter. The Quakers earned their crowns throughout the season, and didn’t need to be presented with a trophy to indicate that they are in fact the champs.
That’s because Saturday as a whole was the cementing of dominance. The player wearing a Puck Frinceton t-shirt before the game. The 20-0 lead. The Gatorade shower. The storming of the field.
It was all a coronation.
Now? Long live the kings.
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