In order for Penn to have a shot at the College Sprint Football League title, it had to beat one of the service academies, something the team hasn’t done since 2010.
And just two games into their season, they’ve done just that.
After coming so close a year ago, the Quakers (2-0) pulled off the upset to knock off Army (1-1) on Friday night for the first time since 2008 by the score of 14-9.
“It feels incredible [to finally beat either Army or Navy],” senior captain and starting quarterback Mike McCurdy said. “We knew, first year coming in, you hear all of the older guys say that you’ve got to beat a service academy, and I’ve not been able to do it my first three years. So to come out in my fourth year and in the first opportunity be able to do it for this team, for this program, for Wags, for all the seniors who’ve stuck around with me all four years, it means a lot.”
The squad, which lost a 16-13 double-overtime heartbreaker last season to Army, overcame the Black Knights with a “bend, don’t break” style of defense that yielded only three field goals.
The Red and Blue set the tone for the game early, forcing a three-and-out for Army on the opening drive and countering with 40-yard TD pass from McCurdy to sophomore wide out Aidan Kelly, their second connection of 25-plus yards on the drive.
“It kind of lets everyone know, ‘Hey, we can play with these guys,’ because the academies come out and really lay it on you right from the get-go,” Penn coach Bill Wagner said about the quick start. “They don’t stop, they keep the pressure on, no huddle, conditioning, a lot of depth and by doing that we set the tone that we can play with these guys.”
The defense stood tall in the first half, letting up only a field goal as time expired in the first quarter, despite the fact that the Black Knights had several long drives deep into Penn’s territory. The key moment, and perhaps even the turning point of the game, came late in the second quarter as the Quakers put a halt on Army’s longest drive of the game. Despite methodically moving 79 yards down the field, the Black Knights stalled at Penn’s 6-yard line, and ultimately the Quakers forced a turnover on downs.
Immediately following, the Red and Blue padded their lead with a perfectly placed 85-yard bomb from McCurdy to junior wideout Andrew Sutton, making the score 14-3.
“He came up, he lined up one-on-one on me,” Sutton said. “I knew I could beat him, he got complacent and I burned him over the top and took it to the house.”
Aside from lengthening Penn’s lead, that touchdown pass had extra significance for the Quakers and McCurdy especially. With that pass, McCurdy became the program’s all-time passing yards leader, besting Todd Busler’s record.
“It means a lot to me. I came here and I wasn’t sure I would even play football in college and all of a sudden I was presented with an incredible opportunity here in sprint,” McCurdy said. “The teammates I’ve had here over the years, the fortune I’ve had to start for four years and even have a chance to compete for that record, is all just an indication of the pieces around me.”
Everyone knows that’s a team award, you don’t get passing yards without guys on the other end and guys blocking up front.”
Despite a few long passes, Penn’s offense was mostly stifled by Army in the second half, which put the pressure on the defense to hold the lead.
The defense responded with big play after big play just when Penn needed them the most to stymie the Army attack and limit them to just two field goals in the half. In the fourth quarter alone, the Quakers came up with three interceptions — albeit one was fumbled away on the same play — and forced two turnovers on downs, all of which came on their own half of the field.
“Our defense played their butts off, they really did,” Wagner said. “They must have been on the field for 75 plays. I don’t know what the stats on the tackles were, but the interception, the breakups by [senior captain and safety] Rob Diorio, [sophomore safety] Tom Console had some big hits.”
The game came down to the last drive, when Army got the ball back with under a minute to play deep in their own territory. The Black Knights were able to move the ball into Quakers’ territory, but a last second heave as time expired was intercepted by junior linebacker Quinn Karam, sealing the victory and sending the Penn bench into a frenzy.
Taking down a service academy in week two is huge for the Quakers, and puts them a position to succeed and control their own fate moving forward.
“This is the first time that we’ve sort of been in control of our own destiny,” Sutton said.
“So we just have to take it week by week and win each and every one.”
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