That’s all that stands between Penn football and a record-tying 18th Ivy League title. No one else matters, no scoreboard watching is needed. One game is all that’s left.
Headed into this weekend’s showdown with Cornell, the Quakers (6-3, 5-1 Ivy) are tied atop the Ancient Eight standings with Harvard and Princeton with the season’s finale coming on Saturday.
“It’s kind of a singularity,” senior offensive lineman Nick Demes said. “It all comes down to one game in our careers. It’s win and go home champs, or lose and be disappointed in how it ended up.”
If momentum is any factor at all, it should be in Penn’s corner — the Red and Blue have the reigning Ivy League Offensive and Defensive Players of the Week in junior wide receiver Justin Watson and junior lineman Louis Vecchio, thanks to the duo’s performance in last week’s 27-14 upset of a then-ranked Crimson squad.
“We really can’t let off the gas,” senior linebacker Donald Panciello said. “We had a great game against a great team, but that’s nothing if we don’t win this next week.”
Despite a 27-0 shutout loss on the road against the Tigers, the Quakers have been dominant over the course of most of Ivy play, outscoring opponents 162-97 in six games. The Red and Blue, having won six of their last seven, shook off any bad memories of Princeton in that Harvard game, which kept them in control of their own destiny headed into Week Ten.
“We control what we do,” Penn coach Ray Priore said. “We control everything, and we have to go at it the same way that we’ve done for the last nine weeks.”
Just about the opposite is true for Cornell (4-5, 2-4).
After winning their first three games — including over No. 25 Colgate — the Big Red dropped five straight, finally righting the ship against a weak Columbia squad in an unexpectedly tight 42-40 barnburner.
You probably shouldn’t expect much else from a team whose best player is a punter (and even then, Chris Fraser’s 42.1 yards per punt, though 18th-best in the nation, rank just behind Penn’s Hunter Kelley, who boots it 42.2 yards per try).
That said, it is a former punter who will be leading the Quakers into the weekend. Alek Torgersen — who will be making his 29th and final start for the Red and Blue — has been quietly effective for Penn down the stretch, logging eight touchdowns and 955 yards through the air over the last four games, conceding just one interception in the process.
He’s been overshadowed in that effort by his most-favored target: Justin Watson, who has continued his torrid pace from a year ago. As it stands now, his 1,009 receiving yards are 349 beyond anyone else in the Ivy League, and his 78 receptions pace the conference by almost 30. His league-best eight touchdowns, however, lead the Ancient Eight by a single, paltry score.
This weekend, however, is about the seniors. Twenty-three players will step onto the field for a final time this weekend. With the Ivy League’s ban on postseason play for football, there isn’t the potential for playoffs. Instead, there is a clear-cut finale.
“I don’t think it’s any kind of grand event in our minds,” Demes said. “It’s just one last chance to show what we can do as a team, our last chance to get out there to play together as a team. We’re really embracing — as cliche as it sounds — we’re embracing the process right now and trying to make the most out of it.”
For this group of seniors, they’ve seen Penn football at the highs and lows. From 4-6 their freshman year and a 2-8 season in 2014 — the worst year for the program since 1991 — to an Ivy title in 2015 and the hope of one more in their final campaign.
Regardless of a win this weekend or not, in the final game of the year, the Quakers will have played in a game that mattered. That’s worth celebrating considering where things were two years ago — but the celebrating can wait a bit.
“It means a lot because it’s the last one,” Panciello said, “but the focus here is just trying to focus on the game and not really the outside, ‘Oh, senior year, last this, last that. We’ll talk about that at the end, at banquet. For the week now we’re just focused on the game.”
Whether the seniors are just trying to downplay the significance of Saturday, in the context of how this season will be remembered, this game will be decisive.
It’s win or go home. It’s one more.
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