This story is part of a series on Penn football's 18 Ivy League titles. Click here to read about the team's 1998 championship.
It was bombs away for Penn’s offense on the way to claiming its second Ivy League title in three years.
With a year under his belt and a new pass-focused offensive coordinator, Penn junior quarterback Gavin Hoffman led the Quakers to a 6-1 Ivy League record on his way to earning Ivy League Player of the Year.
“We’re going to actually throw the ball once we get into the red zone … It should be great for everyone, great for fans to watch,” Hoffman said about the new scheme.
Projected to finish third in the Ivy League with a 4-3 record, Penn started its season off with a trip to No. 21 Lehigh.
“[Penn’s new schedule] works to our advantage … It will give us a chance to integrate some young kids,” coach Al Bagnoli said.
As it turned out, Penn really did need the warm-up.
The tough breaks started with running back Kris Ryan, who led the Ivy League in rushing yards the previous season, suffering a right high ankle sprain before the game. The Quakers lost the game 17-10 after two touchdown passes to Ben Zagorski and a field goal attempt by Jason Feinberg was called back.
The following week, despite winning 45-28 in another non-conference game against Lafayette, Penn’s level of play caused worry; they committed 12 fouls for 122 yards.
“I’m concerned. Our maturity level is not where it has to be, which I think is one of the big things that’s going to determine whether or not we’re going to be a good team,” Bagnoli said.
Something must’ve clicked, as Penn players went on to prove to critics and to their own coach that they were ready to contend with a subsequent 48-14 win over Dartmouth.
Two weeks later, the Quakers turned a close first half at Franklin Field into a runaway 43-25 win against Columbia. Unfortunately, after returning against Dartmouth, Ryan once again found his way to the sideline with a sprained knee.
Penn’s only Ivy League loss of the season came against Yale. An 86-yard touchdown drive in the final minute was not enough to save Penn from a 27-24 loss.
This disappointing result clearly lit a fire under the Red and Blue, as they snatched a few wins from the jaws of defeat.
The Quakers were down 21 to Brown with 7:28 left on the clock, when quarterback Gavin Hoffman erupted for 172 yards and three touchdowns, ending the game with a Penn single-game record 476 yards and a 27-24 victory.
Against Princeton on the road the following week, Penn found itself in a similar hole. Down 24-6 with a minute left in the first half, fortune turned for the Quakers as Hoffman threw a pass that was batted by a Princeton linebacker straight into the hands of wide receiver Doug O’Neil, who stretched out for the touchdown. Penn went on to win 40-24.
The Quaker defense emerged as a dominant force in this game as well, allowing just 318 yards of offense while tallying eight sacks, and wearing Princeton all the way down to their third-string center.
“Eventually, we were just pushing ‘em back and creating piles in the backfield”, senior defensive tackle Ed Galan said.
With two games left in the season and a three-way tie for first with Cornell and Harvard, the Quakers welcomed the Crimson to Franklin Field, and barely escaped with the victory. The visitors missed a 33-yard field goal with 10 seconds remaining, giving Penn its third come-from-behind win in a row.
“Comebacks are a coach’s nightmare and a spectator’s delight,” Bagnoli said after the game.
With both teams entering at 5-1 in the Ivy League, the season-ending game against Cornell was only the ninth time in history that the final contest would become a de-facto championship.
“We’ve actually been in a playoff atmosphere for the last four weeks, as soon as we had our first loss at Yale,” Bagnoli said. “It’s been a little hairy, it’s been a little exciting, it’s been a little unpredictable, but I give our kids a lot of credit for staying in there.”
The Quakers’ winning streak continued, taking down the Big Red 45-15. Ryan couldn’t have picked a better time to break out, leading the way with 243 yards rushing and four touchdowns.
Kicker Jason Feinberg became the all-time leading scorer in Penn history, Hoffman became the first Quaker to break 3,000 yards, and the team set a record by scoring 277 points in Ancient Eight play.
“The records will someday be broken … but winning a championship and being a championship quarterback is something I’ll have and no one can break that or take it away from me,” Hoffman said.
His program record of 3,213 passing yards in a season still stands today.
Penn’s dynamic offense delivered on Hoffman's preseason promise to entertain, and the Ivy League title was a nice touch, too.
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