Much like Al Bagnoli’s last time coaching at Franklin Field, things went poorly for Al Bagnoli on Saturday. But unlike the 2014 season, things went very well for Penn football in its former coach’s return to West Philly.
The Quakers, under second-year head coach (and, previously, longtime defensive coordinator) Ray Priore, beat Bagnoli and his Columbia Lions by a score of 35-10. Penn (3-2, 2-0 Ivy) dominated the second half after a slow start to pick up its eighth straight Ivy League victory dating back to last season. The Lions (1-4, 0-2) struggled mightily on offense as they have all season, and their strong first-half defense was nowhere to be found after the halftime break.
Penn struck first early in the game when sophomore linebacker Nick Miller picked off Columbia quarterback Anders Hill deep in Lions’ territory to give the Red and Blue possession just 10 yards from the end zone. The Columbia defense held for three plays, forcing a 4th-and-2, but Priore played it aggressively, as he has all season, and his decision to go for it on 4th down paid off when junior running back Tre Solomon punched it in for the first score of the game.
“That’s what we do,” Priore said of the risky decision.”[We have] a lot of confidence in our offense.”
That touchdown would hold up until the intermission in a first half that saw combined eight punts, two combined interceptions and a missed Penn field goal.
“As we [expected] all week, they played really good defense, they kept us at bay early on, they forced us to run the football, they played outstanding run defense,” Priore said of the Lions.
“At halftime, it was really good how our kids looked each other in the eye and said ‘let’s go out there and play this second half with a little bit of energy.’ We made some nice adjustments on offense. You gotta give Columbia credit. They had us guessing in the first half, then we opened things up a bit.”
But after halftime, the contest took a quick turn as the Penn offense started to click. Two minutes into the second half, senior quarterback Alek Torgersen found star junior wideout Justin Watson for a 46-yard score to make it 14-0.
The Lions clawed back, scoring a rare touchdown on a one-yard score from backup quarterback Hunter Petlansky after a good punt return had given Columbia excellent field position.
But Penn answered immediately with a pair of big plays, first a 29-yard rush by Solomon and then a 50-yard touchdown pass to sophomore wideout Christian Pearson to put the Quakers up 21-7.
“It’s a great thing to be able to contribute to your team,” Pearson said. “Obviously [Watson] is our star receiver so most teams are going to try to double-team him, so me being able to step up and really change the course of the game and contribute to the team is a really great thing.”
Columbia put together a nice drive early in the fourth quarter, but a good pass breakup from sophomore defensive back helped the Red and Blue hold the Lions to just a field goal, and Columbia would not score again. On the next drive, another long run from Solomon and two more catches by Pearson, one for his second score of the game, gave Penn a commanding 28-10 lead.
With 2:01 left, the Quakers put the icing on the cake, with Solomon, playing the role of quarterback in the Wildcat formation, adding a passing touchdown to his impressive statline by finding senior receiver Cam Countryman for a 23-yard score and create the final 35-10 scoreline.
“It was one of those games where maybe the final score wasn’t totally indicative of how we played, and I think we just ran out of gas,” Bagnoli, who coached Penn for 23 years, said. “They’re a really high-powered offense and they can make explosive plays.”
Priore and Bagnoli both acknowledged the unique nature of Saturday’s game, with Bagnoli making his return to Penn’s campus after having “retired” in 2014. But both coaches downplayed the importance of the sideline storyline:
“Before the game, it was nice to see people and catch up... Once the whistle blew, it didn’t matter who was on the other side,” Bagnoli said.
“We talked all week about it, making sure [the team] understood the narrative shouldn’t be me. I stopped taking interviews on Thursday, I was tired of answering, ‘what’s it feel like?’ I’d had it by Wednesday night, so I called it quits on Thursday. The focus should never be on us, the focus should be on the kids.”
Priore admitted to having done some thinking about the reunion himself:
“How could you not, right? You work with somebody, a close, dear friend. Our houses are probably a half a mile apart. His wife and family are outstanding people, great friends.”
But the current Penn coach made it clear that the battle with his mentor had no bearing on his preparation for the game.
“Whether we’re playing Al, or playing my brother [Chuck, who coaches Stony Brook], that week [leading] up to it, it’s gametime, and you try to separate it. We don’t want it to be a distraction for the kids... it’s about the kids, not us.”
Focusing on the “kids” who took the field in Saturday’s romp, it’s hard not to wonder if Bagnoli might wish he had his old job back.