Take an easy-going, gun-slinging quarterback from California. Picture, for instance, Sunshine from “Remember the Titans.” Then give him a bad mustache and the willingness to truck a linebacker.
Now you’ve got Alek Torgersen.
It seems unlikely that a 6-foot-3, 230-pound, punter-quarterback who only started one year of high school football would end up with one of the most prolific careers in Penn football history, yet that’s exactly where things stand.
Torgersen, now in his senior season, has brought the Quakers to the precipice of a second Ivy title in as many years. To get the Red and Blue to this point, the Quakers needed to rebound from Princeton shutting them out on the road, snapping a ten-game Ivy winning streak. That meant taking down a ranked Harvard squad that had only lost one conference contest since 2014.
Fortunately, that one loss had come at the hands of the Red and Blue in 2015. Penn reprised its role as spoiler, taking down the Crimson, 27-14, in Torgersen’s final game at Franklin Field. With the game tied at 14 with 15 seconds remaining, the Huntington Beach, Calif., native found Justin Watson for a game-winning, two-yard score.
The pass was the 51st of Torgersen’s career, a Penn record. The pass also meant the Quakers need just one more win — Saturday against Cornell — to clinch a Ivy League record-tying 18th conference title.
“I’m just trying to send us out on a high note, get that last game in, the championship, holding up the trophy,” Torgersen said. “That’s ultimately the legacy I’d like to leave here.”
It took Torgersen an unconventional journey to reach this point. In high school, he didn’t even start at quarterback until his senior year. That wasn’t for lack of trying.
Following his freshman season at Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana, Calif., Torgersen transferred to his local public school — Edison High School in Huntington Beach. Unfortunately for Torgersen, the quarterback he had been played behind at Mater Dei transferred with him.
The result was that Torgersen had to bide his time, getting reps any way he could — even as the team’s punter. In fact, he started over current Penn punter Hunter Kelley for a while at Edison.
Nonetheless, spring semester of Torgersen’s junior year rolled around and he had yet to become QB1 for the Chargers. That didn’t mean Ray Priore wasn’t watching.
Still an associate head coach under longtime Penn coach Al Bagnoli, Priore was then the recruiting coordinator for the Quakers out in California. Priore had gotten to know Edison coach Dave White after recruiting Brian Higgins to Penn in 1991. On a trip out to California, Priore paid White a visit.
“[On] a typical spring recruiting trip I stopped by,” Priore said. “And he said, ‘I have a guy for you. I don’t really have any film to show you, but I’m telling you this kid is really good academically and he’s got a lot of talent.’”
Tape or not, Priore eventually got to see Torgersen in person — in the Southern California Division II Regional semifinals.
In a game that featured future Penn players Nick Whitton and Louis Vecchio on the Villa Park Spartans, Torgersen led his Chargers to a 28-10 win with a touchdown each by air and land at Angel Stadium in Anaheim.
“He came up and watched one of my games and from that point on, he was like, ‘We want you here at Penn,’” Torgersen remembered. “So he took a shot on me. Not a lot of people would have done that, and I’m forever grateful to this program.”
Shortly thereafter, Torgersen got the offer from Penn.
The decision wasn’t cut and dry, however. In addition to Penn, there were several Division III schools that expressed interest in him. After setting foot on campus, however, his decision was made. The fit was right.
“I’ve always wanted to come to the East Coast, all throughout high school that was kind of my goal — I wanted to get as far away from home as possible,” he explained. “I wanted to have ‘the ultimate college experience’ where I’m so far away from my parents that they can’t come, you know, they’re not an hour drive away.”
It had all fallen into place.He had only been a one-year starter — he’d gotten on Priore’s radar by sheer happenstance — and was fortunate enough to play well in the one game the then-assistant coach attended. And yet he was going to Penn.
It was one game, but Priore had his guy.
Throughout Torgersen’s career, it has been singular games that have represented turning points. Against Villa Park, Torgersen earned his way to Penn. Against Cornell on Nov. 22, 2013, he earned a starting job.
Billy Ragone had been the face of Penn football for four years, but injuries hobbled him in his senior campaign. In the final game of the season, he led one drive before being replaced by Ryan Becker, then a senior who had transferred to Penn from Florida State. He didn’t last long.
Bagnoli turned to Torgersen — still listed as a punter/quarterback — for his first career appearance. It ended in a loss; Torgersen led a rally that fell just short in a 42-41 affair.
But a promising career had been kickstarted. The Californian threw for 106 yards on 6-for-10 passing, logging a pair of scores in the process as he earned Ivy League Rookie of the Week honors — one of only two weekly awards he’s won to date.
“I think ultimately that set me up to be the starter, because had I not gotten into that game, I think it’s more of a competition in spring, it’s more open up to everyone,” Torgersen reflected. “But I was fortunate enough to show what I was able to do in a game situation with a little pressure on me, so it kind of sparked me to the top of the depth chart.”
It was one game, but Bagnoli had his guy.
Since that final game of his rookie year, Torgersen has started all but one of Penn’s games — he missed Fordham last year to injury. Each of those games has built Torgersen up as he heads toward the culmination of his career this Saturday at Cornell.
“You could tell that he knew what he was doing, but he wasn’t confident with it,” junior wide receiver Justin Watson said. “He would lock on to one route or one receiver, and then last year you could tell he became confident with the whole offense.”
Even as he has weathered growing pains, Torgersen has shown remarkable consistency for a player who has had to adapt to three different offensive schemes over the course of the last four years.
Successful as his growth may have been, though, growing pains are just that: His debut as a starter saw Penn blow a 12-point lead with under seven minutes to play and the then-sophomore threw two picks on 14-for-33 passing.
“We played Jacksonville in the first game in a driving rainstorm — I’m not even sure he knew what rain was,” Priore said, alluding to Torgersen’s California roots. “And that didn’t fare very well, but he got better and better as the year went on.”
The topline for his sophomore year isn’t great: 2-8 record. No non-conference wins. A sixth-place Ivy finish.
His personal stats, not bad: Second-most completions in school history (and third per game in the nation). Eleventh-most passing yards per game nationally. Second-most total yards in school history.
Seemingly incongruous, those two clusters underscore the troubles of the 2014 Quakers. Namely, they had no running game. Then-freshman Tre Solomon tore his ACL against Fordham, setting back an already lackluster ground game that ended up scratching 115 yards per game. It wasn’t the smoothest transition.
Torgersen was forced to throw 45, 50, 60 times per game — inflating his own stats but underscoring the structural problems with the team in Al Bagnoli’s final year at the helm. The conclusion of that year seemed like a bottoming out. After a 2-8 season, the departure of the winningest coach in program history could only make things worse.
“Coach Bagnoli is gone, you think Hell is freezing over, you think the world’s coming to an end and so there was a rough period there as a team because we weren’t sure where we were going as a program — then you have the new coaching staff comes in ready to revitalize, we had new life.”
Torgersen had gotten used to change, but this was a big one. After 23 years, Al Bagnoli was gone. In his place was Ray Priore, who had been in University City even longer than his predecessor, a constant presence as an assistant on the sidelines. With him came John Reagan, an offensive coordinator fresh off of stops at Rice and Kansas. The side-effect of this: Torgersen was thrown into his third system in as many years.
If the focus of Torgersen’s sophomore campaign was quantity, his junior year spotlighted the quality of his passes. With a resurgent running game — Solomon returned from injury and then-junior Brian Schoenauer had a breakout year — the throwing burden on Torgersen decreased substantially; he threw 236 passes in 2015 after 421 tries the year before.
“My stats might not be as high as they were, I might not be throwing for as many yards, but we’re winning more games and I’d rather win games than have stats,” Torgersen said. “It’s more fun, it’s more fun after the game, more fun during the game, when you’re winning.”
Still, Torgersen’s 19 touchdowns were second in the league even as the yardage of five other quarterbacks out-paced him. It helped that Watson emerged that year as the Ancient Eight’s preeminent receiving threat, leading the league in receptions, yards and touchdowns in his sophomore season.
More important was the hardware.
Though the season seemed set to repeat the preceding two — the Quakers dropped three of their first four, including a 41-20 romp at the hands of Dartmouth — something clicked. Facing off against Bagnoli for the first time — he took the Columbia head coaching job before the 2015 season — the Red and Blue stomped the Lions, 42-7, kickstarting a seven-game winning streak that won them a share of the Ivy title.
Critical at the time but lost in the chaos of the rest of the year, however, was Penn’s first win. On the road at Villanova, the Quakers upset an ailing Wildcat squad, 24-13, for the first time since 1911.
It wasn’t a conference game, it didn’t matter toward the ultimate goal of an Ancient Eight title, but thanks to a pair of Torgersen to Watson touchdowns and a little bit of extra magic, the Quakers knew they could compete with the best.
It was one game, but it set the stage for a title.
Fresh off of the 2015 crown and returning most of the team’s starters from a year ago, it’s time for one last go at the title.
Torgersen wasn’t going to miss his chance. He spent the summer in Philadelphia, working out with his wide receivers — even literally working in the same office as Watson.
For the first time in his career, Torgersen was not only playing with the same personnel for a second straight season — he was playing under the same system. He was laid back, but he was ready.
“You just see him as a kid from California that loves being out here and just loves life,” Watson said. “So it’s cool that he can flip the switch and when it comes to football, comes to the weight room that he’s very intense, a very different guy.”
Although the Quakers started off with a pair of losses to Lehigh and Fordham, they easily dispatched Dartmouth, taking down last year’s Ivy co-champions, 37-24. One win rolled into another against Central Connecticut State.
Then came a 35-10 win over Columbia. And a 42-7 romp of Yale. Followed by a too-close-for-comfort 21-14 Homecoming victory against Brown.
It was Torgersen right at the heart of it. Never the star — Watson and Solomon combined for three Ivy Offensive Player of the Week awards while Torgersen remained empty-handed — the Californian has not only logged an Ivy-best 16 passing touchdowns in 2016, but his six rushing scores are fourth in the conference.
In fact, it has been his success on the ground — he’s recorded 338 yards rushing — that has opened the door to the aerial assault as teams are forced to pay attention to his legs.
“He’s one of the toughest guys on the field every time we step on the field,” senior wide receiver Cam Countryman said. “Any quarterback that will want to run over middle linebackers and jump over guys and get flipped just to get a couple more yards, I’ll ride with that guy.”
Everything was almost too perfect. Until Princeton happened.
Taking on the Tigers on the road, the Red and Blue were effectively stymied, getting shut out, 28-0, as Torgersen was limited to just 179 yards with a lost fumble and a red-zone pick. The rails were threatening to come off of the dream senior season.
With just two games left, Penn was stuck in a win-or-go-home situation. But once again, Torgersen’s steady hand was at the ready, methodically leading the Quakers 80 yards for the de facto game-winning score against Harvard in the game’s final minutes.
His final pass at Franklin Field delivered the program touchdowns record and kept the Red and Blue alive in the final week of the Ivy race — leaving Penn, Princeton and Harvard all tied atop the Ancient Eight standings.
Under Priore, the Quakers have rallied under the mantra “one more.” It isn’t meant to create a sense of finality, but to keep the players focused on the task at hand. One more play, one more drive, one more win.
Inevitably, however, such a new meaning begins to take shape in seniors’ minds as Cornell looms, a final shot at the championship.
“It’s going to be different because it is the last time, things are coming to an end,” Torgersen said. “It’s going to be the last Tuesday practice next week, the last Wednesday practice — it’s the last time you’re coming out here with these guys and putting on that Penn uniform. It’s going to be a little different, maybe a little more emotional, but we’ll keep level-headed.”
Torgersen has had a storied career. He’s won trophies and set records. He’s led the way to miraculous wins and come back from tough losses. He’s experienced everything you could as a football player — except play through a career finale.
Now, it’s just one game, but it’s a chance to go out a champion.
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