Players such as Anthony DeSale made big plays on Saturday for the Penn football team. ITHACA, N.Y. -- After Saturday's post-game press conference, reporters swarmed Penn tailback Jim Finn in adulation. The senior co-captain had run the ball for 188 yards against Cornell (4-6, 1-6 Ivy League). His most revered carry, a three-yard sweep-left in the first quarter, propelled him past 1990 graduate Bryan Keys as Penn's single-season rushing leader. "That's just gravy," said Finn of his personal accomplishment. Just gravy compared to the Ivy championship he was celebrating -- the one he eyed since Labor Day. Just gravy on the championship his teammates served to him like a freshly-carved turkey on Thanksgiving. Gravy in the grand scheme of football. The conference title is the meat. That was the ultimate goal. For the first nine weeks of 1998, the Penn football team (8-2, 6-1 Ivy League) rode on Finn's shoulders atop the Ivy League. They were riders on a storm, contributors but merely his supporting cast in a search for the title. But when Finn fumbled the football on his own 22-yard line of a scoreless game Saturday, the players that lay beneath his shadow came out roaring to his rescue. "When I fumble, it doesn't really faze me afterwards," Finn said. "It just happens. It's something that's part of the game." Before the Ivy's leading rusher made it as far as the Gatorade jug, Penn junior defensive back Anthony DeSalle ran in front of Cornell quarterback Mike Hood's 1st-and-10 pass. The rarely-used junior sprinted 83 yards down the right sideline for a gut-wrenching, momentum-shifting, game-breaking touchdown. He handed the ball to the Quakers special teams with a 6-0 lead -- Finn's error eradicated. "When [DeSalle] returned it, it was just like I scored," Finn said. "We went ahead and that's what we are supposed to do, keep going." But the junior defensive back was an unlikely candidate to run an 83-yard dash into the Schoellkopf Field endzone. DeSalle, who never started a football game in college, was not even supposed to be in the lineup. The former reserve wide receiver was pressed into action at defensive back by Penn coach Al Bagnoli when corner Hasani White's shoulder stiffened last minute. Cornell coach Pete Mangurian wanted Hood to try exploiting the reserve's inexperience, guessing he would crumble like a weak link. Champions, however, don't have weak links -- just less renowned ones. And DeSalle proved he wouldn't crack. "Obviously, it's really great to have big plays, especially because the offense was struggling a little bit early," Penn co-captain Joe Piela said. "They got the ball deep in the zone on that one before Anthony picked it off. Those are the kind of plays that you need." In fitting Quakers style, the Cornell golden opportunity that wasn't was followed by the extra-point that didn't happen. On the ensuing play, Penn senior Mike Pikiel snapped the football low to holder Jason Battung, who could not scoop it. But what looked like a botched play turned into a beauty as Pikiel held-off the Big Red defense long enough for Battung -- the Quakers' fourth-string quarterback -- to scramble first right, then left, and then loft a pass to career-special teams senior T.J. Trapp down the left sideline, at about the one-foot mark. The reserve fullback then powered his way over a Cornell defender into the endzone for a two-point conversion -- the first points of his career. Penn led 8-0 after the first quarter. "There wasn't very many normal series," Penn coach Al Bagnoli said. The Quakers struck again less than two minutes into the second quarter, again with the Penn offense on the sidelines. After Cornell's Charles Watson boomed a punt to Penn's 17-yard line, Piela hauled it in, stepped back, spun off a series of tried tackles and like a greased monkey chased by park rangers, charged 83-yards downfield to the endzone opposite DeSalle's first-quarter score. Add kicker Jason Feinberg's extra-point and pair of field-goals, and the Quakers led 21-0 at halftime, before Finn and the Penn offense even began its charge. "It was a weird offensive game early on," Bagnoli said. "All of a sudden we look up and we've got a couple touchdowns and probably hadn't more than two first downs. It's always the kicking game and big defensive plays. We had a little bit of everything? we were very fortunate." Throw in a completed pass to long-snapper Clint Burhorn and a tackle by kickoff specialist Kendall Hochman, a touchdown by David O'Neill and an interception by Justin Gallagher. Everyone in the lineup was contributing, picking up the slack, until Finn finally broke free from his struggle in the fourth quarter for a 71-yard run. From a simple perspective, it was a huge game for the role player and an early struggle for Finn until he broke out late. But looking over a longer duration, it simply shows the chemistry that dates back to training camp. "I've been here for four years and this is definitely the tightest team that I've been on," Finn said in September. "Everyone is working together and that is the only way we are going to win. We can't have everybody going their own way; we have to work as a team. We believe in ourselves which makes me think that we'll come through when it counts." Championships aren't built by individuals. Ask Penn's 1996 rushing leader Jasen Scott. He ran for 1,193 yards but the Quakers finished just 5-5. Championships are built by entire teams. Saturday afternoon, Finn proved worthy of the admiration he received at the press conference. But it wasn't just his 1,450 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns that earned the respect. Rather, it was the leadership displayed by him and by Piela throughout the season. By downplaying personal achievements and accentuating team chemistry, Finn helped build a team environment. It was an aura stronger than any single player, greater than even a pair of captains. It was one of those things where on any given play, Finn could have stumbled without falling. Because even the most likely of candidates proved fully capable of picking him back up.Comments powered by Disqus
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