Oftentimes, expectations do not match reality. Penn football's 2012 season is a perfect example of that.
Coming off a 9-1 season in 2010, in which they went 7-0 in Ivy League play, the Quakers came into 2011 as favorites to win their third consecutive Ivy League title. Due to a slew of reasons, however, including several injuries to key contributors throughout the season, the Quakers fell short of their goal, finishing in a four-way tie for second place.
“We not only were young last year, but we incurred so many injuries that we became even younger,” coach Al Bagnoli said at a preseason media day in 2012.
Coming into the 2012 season, expectations were lower, as the Quakers were projected to finish second in the Ivy League behind Harvard. After losing the first two games of the season to Lafayette (28-21) and Villanova (24-8), the Quakers began conference play in Hanover, N.H. against Dartmouth.
Led by seniors Jeff Jack and Greg Schuster, who both ran for one-yard scores in the first half, the Red and Blue raced out to a 20-0 halftime lead. Despite letting the Big Green to get back into the game with three second-half touchdowns, the Quakers added a touchdown of their own on a 51-yard burst from senior running back Lyle Marsh, with a successful two-point conversion to hold on to win by a score of 28-21.
Two weeks later, after dropping a close game to non-conference William & Mary, 34-28, the Quakers stayed in Philadelphia to take on Columbia, a team they had beaten for 15 consecutive years. Until late in the fourth quarter, however, it looked like a 16th straight win was not in the cards.
The Quakers came out of the gates struggling and only managed 86 yards of offense in the first half, and the Lions’ defense did everything it could to stop Penn’s powerful rushing attack. Still, the Red and Blue found themselves down only three with 2:26 left to go, when senior quarterback Billy Ragone led his team 62 yards down the field to score the game-winning touchdown on a pass to Marsh. Columbia did its best to answer, but a goal-line stand from the Quakers’ defense prevented them from scoring the go-ahead touchdown, sealing the win.
The next week, the Red and Blue headed up north to New Haven, Conn. to take on Yale. In a game where the Quakers had no answer for the rushing attack of the Bulldogs, who ran for 203 yards on 45 carries, Penn fell to 2-4 in a 27-13 loss. The team as a whole had its worst performance of the season, and its title hopes suffered a hit as a result.
Following this tough loss, the Quakers traveled back to Philadelphia for Homecoming against Brown, which had arguably the strongest defense in the Ivy League. The game started as a defensive battle, with the Quakers taking a 7-3 lead into halftime with a 22-yard reception from receiver Conner Scott. The second-half, however, was a different story, as both teams began slicing through the opposing defenses, and the score was tied, 17-17, in the closing minutes of the fourth quarter. With the game on the line, defensive back Trevor Niemann intercepted a pass, giving the ball back to Penn at the Brown 44-yard line. From there, kicker Connor Loftus made the game-winning field goal, giving the Quakers a 20-17 victory.
From there, the Quakers traveled to New Jersey to take on Princeton and eventual Ivy League Defensive Player of the Year Mike Catapano. While the Quakers’ offense was not having its best day, the defense stepped up to make big plays when it mattered most, including a 15-yard pick six from C.J. Mooney to tie the score at 21 with 7:31 remaining in the fourth quarter. After another crucial defensive stop, Ragone led a 10-play, 58-yard drive down the field, ending in a three-yard touchdown run to give the Quakers a 28-21 lead with the clock winding down. After Princeton got the ball back, they drove to the Penn six-yard line, but captain and future NFL player Brandon Copeland recovered a fumble on third-and-goal that sealed the win for the Red and Blue.
Up next for the Quakers was a home game against Harvard, the defending Ivy champion. The Quakers would be guaranteed a share of the conference title with a win. The Quakers quickly scored on their first drive and carried the momentum throughout the game. Lyle Marsh led the way for Penn, running for 130 yards on 27 carries. However, on the final play of the third quarter, with Penn holding onto a 21-14 lead, Ragone was brought down awkwardly and suffered from a dislocated ankle, from which he would not return.
This ended up raising the intensity for the Quakers, as they capped off that drive with a touchdown pass from backup quarterback Andrew Holland to tight end Mitch King. After the Crimson scored on their next drive to cut the deficit to seven, they forced a three-and-out to get the ball back on their own 11. However, three consecutive sacks and a safety by the Quakers gave them a 30-21 victory and a share of the Ivy League title.
“We found our identity at the right time,” Bagnoli said.
The last contest of the season was a matchup in Ithaca, N.Y. The stakes were clear: if Penn won, it would clinch the outright title.
Holland got the start at quarterback, as Ragone’s season was finished after the ankle injury against Harvard. After falling behind by a score of 13-7, the Quakers scored three unanswered touchdowns to take a 28-13 lead in the fourth quarter. However, the Big Red were able to tie it up late in the fourth following a nullified 80-yard interception return from senior Steve Lias due to a roughing the passer penalty.
At the same time in Boston, Harvard beat Yale to secure a share of the Ivy title if Penn lost. However, after a questionable squib kick by the Big Red, the Quakers marched down the field and scored the game-winning touchdown on a three-yard run by Spencer Kulcsar. Despite a last ditch effort from Cornell to send the game into overtime, the Quakers held on to win their third outright Ancient Eight title in the past four years.
This was Penn’s most recent outright Ivy League title, though they tied for first in 2015 and 2016. In addition, this would be Bagnoli’s last Ivy championship with Penn.
Penn had five first team All-Ivy players: seniors Copeland, Joe Bonadies and Scott Lopano, junior Sebastian Jaskowski, and sophomore Daniel Davis. Five additional members finished second team, and two others earned honorable mention status.
Though it was not an easy path, the Red and Blue were able to bounce back from their down year in 2011 and recapture their spot atop the Ivy League.
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