Forgive Penn football coach Ray Priore if he doesn’t want to address the elephant in the room.
“I’ll be quite honest with you, I really don’t give much thought to it,” the second-year head coach said. “For us, it’s just putting the ball down and playing another game.”
But no matter how much the Quakers try to downplay it, the overarching storyline at Franklin Field on Saturday will be one thing: The Return.
This weekend, Penn football will tackle its Ivy League home opener against Columbia, bringing forth the second-ever showdown between Priore and his former boss, Al Bagnoli.
For Bagnoli, who led the Penn program to nine Ivy titles from 1992 to 2014 while Priore served as his defensive coordinator, Saturday will mark his first time serving as the opposing coach on the sidelines of Franklin Field since he retired at the end of 2014. Since February 2015, he has helmed the Lions after making the decision to quickly unretire.
“To be honest, there is no distraction with our kids,” Priore said. “They’re thinking about each day individually, and as the game comes this weekend, we’ll think about just that.”
Bagnoli, for his part, declined comment on his upcoming return, saying he didn’t want to shift the focus away from his team.
The ice was already broken last season, when Priore’s squad spoiled Columbia’s 2015 Homecoming with a 42-7 blowout. Out-gaining the Lions, 417-199, Penn gave Priore the early bragging rights in a coaching matchup previously thought to be inconceivable.
“You know Coach [Bagnoli] and I have a long history, and we have ultimate respect for each other. Everyone made more of it than it was,” Priore said. “We went in as friends, came out friends, and still are friends.”
Indeed, the relationship between Priore and Bagnoli goes back for decades — but one thing that’s lasted almost as long has been the Quakers’ perennial dominance over their New York counterparts. Penn (2-2, 1-0 Ivy) has topped Columbia in 19 consecutive matchups, and the Quakers will be heavily favored to extend that streak.
But with that said, there’s no denying the strides that Columbia (1-3, 0-1) has made in Bagnoli’s brief tenure. After going winless in both 2013 and 2014, Columbia won twice in 2015 — including an upset at Yale that snapped an 18-game Ivy League losing streak — and has already taken a non-conference win over Wagner for the second straight year.
This season, led by an experienced linebacker corps featuring the Ancient Eight’s first and fourth-leading tacklers in seniors Gianmarco Rea and Christian Conway, the Lions have limited opponents to 22.8 points per game and 4.9 yards per play, both second in the conference.
“They’re definitely a stout defense, and that shows up on film,” said wide receiver Justin Watson, who was limited to a season-low 26 receiving yards last year at Columbia. “Any given Saturday anything can happen, so we’re coming out preparing like it’s a playoff game.”
The Lions haven’t had quite as much success on the other side of the ball, but one advantage they do have is a sense of mystery, as both senior Florida transfer Skyler Mornhinwheg and junior Anders Hill have seen time behind center.
“The kid that’s been playing a little more recently [Hill] is a pretty good athlete, 6-foot-4 and not afraid to run the ball, so he’s definitely one of their playmakers on offense,” senior linebacker Donald Panciello said. “We take every opponent seriously no matter who it is. ... The people that can hurt us the most are ourselves.”
Fortunately for Penn, the team’s self-inflicted wounds have been minimal over the last two weeks, as the squad has surged up to 44th place in the STATS.com FCS rankings.
And if the Quakers’ trajectory is anything similar to that of the 2015 squad — the one that won its final six games — Columbia and the rest of the league could be in some serious trouble.
“It took us a couple games to get going last year, and it was the same this year, but we still have plenty of room for improvement,” Panciello said. “I think we’ve still yet to see four great quarters of Penn football, and hopefully that’s coming this week.”
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