As the opening credits appeared to the tune of the music score, Ray Priore readied for his first season as head coach of the Penn football team, his 29th year as part of the staff. Projected to finish sixth in the Ivy League by the preseason media poll, Priore was attempting to revive a program that won just two games in 2014.
Many Red and Blue backers likely saw their hope for a turnaround disappear upon first glance of the box score of the first game. They saw a 42-21 beating at hands of Lehigh, allowing the Mountain Hawks to net 245 yards on the ground and quarterback Nick Shafnisky to account for five scores. The Daily Pennsylvanian led the game recap with, “Maybe this season won’t be about change after all ... Penn football’s season opener shaped up a lot like most of its contests from last year.”
One thing that became evident, though, was that the Quakers had the talent to hold their own against tough opponents. With the papal visit moving the next game up two days, the Quakers played their version of Thursday Night Football against No. 4 Villanova. Penn demonstrated it wasn’t going without a fight with an astounding 24-13 victory that marked the first time the program defeated the area foe since 1911. Injuries were a factor for Villanova, but the defense was stout after allowing 41 points in 2014’s matchup.
Then, it went back downhill, fast. In the first conference game of the year, Penn proved no match for Dartmouth, with Big Green quarterback Dalyn Williams two steps ahead of the Red and Blue at every turn. Williams ran for 73 yards and two scores and completed 23 of 25 passes (92%) for 336 yards and four touchdowns. Meanwhile, Penn then-junior quarterback Alek Torgersen completed seven of 10 attempts for 29 yards before leaving at halftime with a concussion. Penn’s deficit sat at 41-6 after three quarters before inching to the final score of 41-20. A betting man could have gotten great odds on Penn winning the Ivy League at that time, but a betting man wouldn’t have wagered on the Red and Blue after seeing how much better the Big Green looked.
Although the Quakers quickly fell behind to Fordham, 28-3, in mid-October, that day marked a turning point for the team. What was shaping up as another blowout loss slowly turned into something else, with Penn scoring 20 straight points at one point to eventually even up the game at 45 with 1:46 left in regulation. Although the Rams hit a field goal with eight seconds left, it was the best the Quaker offense, led by backup Andrew Lisa for the game, played. It also marked the breakout of then-junior running back Brian Schoenauer, who ran for 161 yards and three touchdowns.
Facing longtime coach Al Bagnoli, now the head coach for Columbia, Torgersen then returned from injury to lead the Quakers in trouncing Columbia with 42 unanswered points after the Lions scored first. Then-freshman receiver Christian Pearson was unstoppable running bubble screens, converting 10 receptions for 126 yards and one of Torgersen’s three scores through the air.
The Red and Blue made it back-to-back triumphs by topping Yale, 34-20, on a Friday night at Franklin Field. After falling behind 10-0, Penn outscored the Elis 20-3 in a key second quarter to secure the lead. Torgersen had 350 yards passing and four touchdowns, Pearson burned Yale for 133 yards and two touchdowns, and then-sophomore running back Tre Solomon put up a solid 120 yards rushing with a touchdown.
Penn improved to 3-1 against Brown in a contest which resembled the Columbia blowout. The Bears struck first, but the Quakers followed with 41 unanswered points. This forced Brown into catch-up mode, where the defense shined with two forced fumbles and four interceptions.
Having won three straight conference games, Penn faced a challenging homecoming opponent in Princeton. A 42-yard field goal off the leg of then-senior Jimmy Gammill with 3:22 tied the game at 20, but the Tigers were in position to kick a game-winning, 35-yard field goal with just seconds left.
But senior linebacker Donald Panciello, who sealed the Villanova win with a 90-yard fumble return, blocked Nolan Bieck’s kick, forcing overtime.
Penn forced a three-and-out on Princeton’s first possession in overtime, ceding a field goal, and allowing itself an opportunity to tie it back up. Torgersen’s 11-yard pass to senior receiver Eric Fiore was the nail in the coffin for Princeton, provoking madness among the remaining fans at Franklin Field.
At this point, the Quakers had won four straight Ivy games and were still in the Ivy League title picture. Standing in their way was Harvard, which had previously served Dartmouth its only loss. A win over Harvard wouldn’t guarantee a share of the championship, but a loss would eliminate the Red and Blue.
On a cold, windy day, Penn jumped out to 21-6 lead thanks to two short Torgersen touchdown runs and a 68-yard TD catch-and-run from Torgersen to then-sophomore Justin Watson. Harvard, though, came right back with three straight scores, capping its run with a trick play pass by Ivy League Rookie of the Year receiver Justice Shelton-Mosley. Penn reclaimed lead in third with 28 yard pass to then-senior tight end Ryan Kelly before Watson extended the lead with a 79-yard run in fourth quarter. Penn pulled off the upset.
Priore was adamant that Penn had not yet beaten Cornell, although the Big Red were not nearly as daunting a foe as the Crimson. Penn jumped ahead of Cornell 20-0 in the first quarter and won easily, 34-21. Schoenauer had 118 rushing yards and a TD, Watson cemented his season with 133 yards and two scores and Torgersen accounting for three touchdowns.
Then the accolades came in. Priore became just the seventh coach to win Ivy League Coach of the Year in his first season and then-senior Tyler Drake (80 tackles, 8.5 sacks) took down the Defensive Player of the Year award while Watson (1,082 receiving yards, 10 total touchdowns) finished second for Offensive Player of the Year. Penn had 11 players receive All-Ivy recognition.
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