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Football vs. Harvard Credit: Ilana Wurman , Ilana Wurman, Ilana Wurman

An inspired, honest effort.

That is all Al Bagnoli could have expected from his team in his last home game, and that is what Penn football delivered in its back-and-forth 34-24 loss to Harvard on Senior Day.

It sure would have been nice to send off the program’s winningest coach with another victory in his final game at Franklin Field, but even Bagnoli himself acknowledged that Penn is not currently on the same competitive standing as Harvard.

“Given where we are as a program, we’re just not quite good enough to overcome things like missed opportunities or big plays against a team at the level of Harvard,” Bagnoli said after the game.

The Quakers had their fair share of miscues that ultimately prevented an upset, but what stood out about Saturday’s effort was that the Red and Blue didn’t let those mistakes stop them from being competitive — they even led by a touchdown deep into the third quarter.

It wasn’t a complete 60-minute effort, but it was the best the Red and Blue have played all season and a material improvement over their underwhelming showings against Dartmouth and Yale earlier this year.

“We watched them all year, and they were so close,” Harvard coach Tim Murphy said. “They played like an outstanding football team today. They played like a team that expected to win.”

The fight the Red and Blue brought to the Frank on Saturday was surely inspired by the special circumstances surrounding the game, but it was also a continuation of the heightened performance on both sides of the ball that has developed recently.

The Quakers really started to compete at a higher level last week in a hard-fought 22-17 loss against rival Princeton.

It was a draining effort, but the Quakers were able to build on it and put together a performance that had the undefeated class of the Ivy League on the ropes into the fourth quarter.

Sophomore quarterback Alek Torgersen looked as poised as he’s ever been on Saturday, delivering throw after throw while avoiding turnovers, which is something the Ivy League leader in completions had struggled with earlier in the season.

And although Penn’s defense didn’t have an answer for Harvard running back Paul Stanton , the unit generated three of its 11 turnovers on the season against the Crimson.

“I’ve got no big complaints,” Bagnoli said. “We would have loved to win the game, but I’m proud of our kids’ effort, of how hard they played.”

In the week leading up to his last game at Franklin Field, Bagnoli talked about measuring success in ways beyond the win-loss column.

He said that given the circumstances the program has faced this season, it’s also important to look at the degree to which the team — along with its individual players — is improving and reaching its potential.

The nine-time Ivy League champion returned to the topic after Saturday’s loss.

“You can see all of these young kids making significant improvements and taking that next step, and I think that’s going to bode really well for us,” Bagnoli said.

“We’re definitely going in the right direction.”

Granted, there was really no direction to go but up for Penn football after its 0-4 start this season, but Saturday’s performance was a step in the right direction nonetheless.

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