ITHACA, N.Y. — Since Ray Priore took over Penn football, the Ivy trophy has found a steady home in University City. That won’t change for another year.
For the second time in as many seasons, the Quakers went out as champs against Cornell, clinching a record-tying 18th Ivy League title with Saturday’s 42-20 win over the Big Red, sharing the crown with Princeton.
Following a pair of finishes in the bottom half of the conference in 2013 and 2014, the Red and Blue have finished with identical 7-3 overall and 6-1 conference records — as well as the first back-to-back titles since 2009-10.
“When teams have two losing seasons, you can see a lot of guys hang their heads, throw the towel in,” junior wide receiver Justin Watson said. “But the coaches came in and you just trust the process. That’s what we did from the beginning. Hats off to these upperclassmen that really led the charge with that.”
Attention was on the seniors in their final game, but it was junior running back Tre Solomon who was the star, recording 173 yards and a pair of scores — including the game’s opening score on a one-yard rush.
Penn’s lead — grabbed with just under seven minutes left in the first quarter — was short-lived after a 35-yard trick play set up the Big Red (4-6, 2-5) for a 35-yard touchdown pass just 50 seconds later. Cornell couldn’t tie it up, however, missing the PAT and allowing the Red and Blue to hold on to a one-point lead.
That was all Alek Torgersen needed.
The following drive, the senior quarterback found Christian Pearson for a 22-yard score, and one drive later — following sophomore Mason Williams’ Ivy-best sixth interception of the year — ran it in himself from five yards out.
Williams’ pick — giving him the most in a single season for the Quakers since Ross Armstrong had six in 1984 — also left Penn with some breathing room, as the Pasadena, Calif., native jumped a route in the end zone to halt a threatening Big Red drive.
"[Defensive Coordinator Bob] Benson preaches, ‘Turnovers, turnovers, turnovers,’” Williams said. “We got punched in the mouth two weeks ago, and since then I feel like our defense has stepped it up a notch each week.”
Torgersen finished the day with 284 yards through the air, 58 on the ground with a touchdown passing and two rushing. By going 24-for-31, he improved his career completion percentage to .651, best in program history. He finishes Penn’s all-time leader in touchdown passes, to go along with two Ivy titles.
“As it’s coming to an end, it’s sweet,” he said. “But it’s going to hurt a little bit these next few days where you wake up, and you don’t have practice or anything like that, and you just sit in your room, and you’re not really sure what to do with your life.”
When Cornell made it a one-score game on a 58-yard bomb — again a pass by running back Chris Walker after a double reverse — Penn answered again. This time, Solomon punched it in from one yard out with two seconds left in the half, making it 28-13 after the Quakers had gone for it on fourth down twice in the red zone to set up the score.
As great as Solomon’s game was, though, his wasn’t the most exciting rush of the day. No, that came from offensive lineman Nick Demes.
After freshman defensive back Conor O’Brien intercepted the first pass of his career, Penn eventually found itself at the Cornell 7 with seven minutes left in the third quarter. Torgersen started to rush right on first down before looking to his left, where Demes was waiting wide open to receive a long lateral, and the senior captain trucked his way into the end zone.
“I was so tired at first. That was the longest and fastest I’ve run in awhile,” Demes said. “My second thought was that I just wanted to go and run and mob the bench.”
“I said, ‘If you run it out here on the 40-yard line, he’s never going to make it to the end zone,’” Priore half-joked. “So we waited for the perfect spot, Alek waited and waited and waited until the last minute, it was a perfect designed play. That was fun.”
While the score for the big man briefly deflated the hosts, they quickly rallied back The Big Red strung some big passes together to find the end zone for a third time and looked poised to make it a one-score game again after a big interception early in the fourth quarter.
Senior linebacker Matt Henderson decided then to intervene, stepping in front of a route up the middle to grab his first career interception, effectively cutting off any Cornell hope of playing spoiler. An Alek Torgersen rushing touchdown on the subsequent drive was just icing on the cake.
Amidst all of the chaos, Justin Watson made a statement of his own. The junior wide receiver set a Penn single-season record in the third quarter with his eighth reception, and later on put up the program-best mark in receiving yards, finishing 2016 with 1,115, by far the most in the conference.
Regardless of individual performances this game and this season, however, there is one accolade all 106 players on the team now have to their names: 2016 Ivy League champions.