The Ivy League title isn't happening. But faced with an 0-3 record, they fought back as far as they could.
Penn football will host Cornell on Saturday at Franklin Field in the finale of an up-and-down 2017 season in which the Quakers (5-4, 3-3 Ivy) will not finish as Ivy League champions for the third time in three years under coach Ray Priore.
After starting slow with three one-possession losses to Dartmouth, Columbia and Yale — the first two on the very last play — Penn has taken three straight against Brown, Princeton, and Harvard to pull even at 3-3 in conference play. However, with Yale having clinched a share of the conference title at 5-1, the Quakers are playing for second, as is Cornell. Two weeks ago, the Big Red were tied atop the Ancient Eight with Yale and Columbia before falling to Dartmouth and Columbia in consecutive weeks.
Senior wide receiver and captain Justin Watson says to still expect 100 percent from the Red and Blue.
“You just see how we reacted after going 0-3. It’s just the type of guys; we have that stick together through everything,” Watson said. “At that point, we just decided to try to go 1-0 each week and win as many games as we can, doing it for each other. This week, nothing’s changing.”
Priore said this team does not feel like a 3-3 squad, and that he will remember a few plays that impacted the Quakers’ fortunes.
“You never take any play for granted. Our world is built around execution,” Priore said. “You don’t know when that key play is going to be, and the one statistic that we’ll probably talk about from now until the offseason is the turnovers, which was the biggest statistical difference from this year to past years.”
While the offense took a step back this year, struggling to land on its feet after the graduation of All-Ivy quarterback Alek Torgersen, the defense has remained an area of strength for the Red and Blue.
Senior defensive lineman and captain Louis Vecchio stands out among his unit. Saturday could be Vecchio's last game for the Red and Blue, but his story isn't over just quite yet.
A big-time recruit who also considered Stanford, Boise State and Harvard among other schools, Vecchio played in eight games in his freshman year. Expecting to play a larger role in his sophomore year, his season lasted just two games as he tore his ACL in Penn’s win over Villanova. He was reminded of a conversation he had had with his parents when deciding which college to attend.
“It gave me perspective on — I didn’t really get hurt much in high school — but what if one day you get hurt and football’s not on the table anymore, what are you going to do,” Vecchio said. “And having that happen to me here was, ‘wow, they were right.’”
Just like that, Vecchio faced a long road ahead of him.
“With all that uncertainty in the air, you don’t even know what type of player you’ll be, what type of person you’ll be, your whole life really changes after that,” Vecchio said of his time out recovering in 2015. “It’s funny, because freshman year I sat down with one of my strength coaches, and I mapped out how I wanted these next four years to go, and nowhere on that sheet was get hurt and have to sit out a year. “
2016 was a different story. After ceding 49 and 31 points in the first two non-conference games, it looked like the Penn defense might not be the same force it was the prior year. However, they heated up at the right time. In Ivy play, they allowed 19 points per game while pressuring the quarterback and forcing turnovers.
After Penn fell to Princeton, 28-0, to drop to 5-1 in the conference, it once again needed to beat Harvard to win the conference title. The Red and Blue won, 27-14, in Franklin Field on a Friday-night, nationally-televised game. Vecchio won Ivy League Defensive Player of the Week honors with three sacks and a 40-yard interception return for a touchdown.
He paced the team with 10.5 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks, both of which ranked in the top six in the Ivy League. He earned first-team All-Ivy.
“Looking back, I’m proud of how far I’ve come and everything I did to overcome it,” Vecchio said. “For the season to go the way it did, it was nice to prove to myself that was the player I was capable of being and nice to see the injury might have been a roadblock but it didn’t stop me from my goals.”
With five All-Ivy selections and a few more starters returning on defense in 2017, it is of little surprise to Vecchio that this defense has played at a familiar level, although he has noticed an increased intensity this season.
Even though Vecchio's stats — 31 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss and 3 sacks — resemble last year’s, Priore says other teams are forced to take Vecchio into account each play.
“His play has been where he left off last year. When you’re good, people know where you are, so you get extra blocking attention,” Priore said.
Due to his ACL injury, Vecchio has a fifth year of eligibility, and he is unsure of whether he will return to Penn or pursue the NFL. But right now, he is treating this game like it could be his last.
“Everything worked out.”