This story is part of a series on Penn football's 18 Ivy League titles. Click here to read about the team's 2000 championship.
Football is a game of inches.
Al Bagnoli knows this all too well. His 2003 team had few inches to spare throughout the Penn football season. Multiple games came down to the wire, and the Red and Blue struggled to bring second-half intensity for much of the season, but a few inches helped the Quakers finish with a 10-0 record and an outright Ivy League title.
Projected to repeat as League champions after a nine-win season in 2002, the Quakers hosted Duquesne in their season opener. The last time the Quakers took the field in 2002, they blanked Cornell by a score of 31-0. With a highly-touted incoming recruiting class, expectations were high for the Red and Blue.
"It has to rank in the top one, two, or three classes that we've brought in as a whole, in terms of meeting our needs," said Ray Priore, who was Penn's defensive coordinator in 2003. "We've got a really good chance to do some great stuff this season."
The Quakers had no trouble handling Duquesne. Penn received the opening kickoff and quickly drove down the field to punch in a score, and the Red and Blue didn't look back. Six different Quakers scored, but quarterback Mike Mitchell's four-touchdown performance helped Penn dominate the Dukes, 51-10.
The following week, Penn held off a late comeback attempt from Dartmouth in a 33-20 win, but the Quakers notably slowed towards the end of the game due to some high-profile injuries. Mitchell's injury was particularly significant, as it meant the Quakers would have to turn to backup Pat McDermott.
McDermott started the following week against Bucknell with Mitchell still nursing his leg injury. In the Quakers' closest game of the season, running back Sam Mathews racked up 105 rushing yards and a touchdown in a huge performance, but it almost wasn't enough. Bucknell trailed Penn by a score of 14-13, but kicker Ryan Korn had a 39-yard field goal attempt with just 20 seconds remaining. Despite making a 40-yarder earlier in the contest, Korn didn't have the distance from 39 yards, and the Quakers squeaked by with their third win of the season.
After Mitchell returned and helped Penn beat Columbia, the Red and Blue hosted Yale. Through three quarters, the Quakers held a 24-3 lead thanks to a career-high 204 rushing yards for Mathews. But Yale set the tone in the fourth quarter, and quarterback Alvin Cowan helped knot the game up at 31 apiece to force an extra period. Both teams had a chance to kick field goals in overtime. Only Penn's Peter Veldman found success, booting a 23-yard chip-shot to send the Elis home.
In Week 7 of the Ivy League season, Penn put its undefeated conference record on the line in a game against Brown that ended up going down to the wire. The Quakers started out strong once again, racing out to a 21-0 lead. Nonetheless, the Bears stuck around, and they were even able to execute a successful onside kick with just over three minutes left to play in regulation. Fortunately for Penn, Pat McManus made an interception on Brown's next drive, giving the Red and Blue a 24-21 win.
Penn finished off the year with three straight Ivy wins over Princeton, Harvard, and Cornell. Their nail-biting victory over the Crimson clinched the Quakers an outright Ivy title for the second straight season, and they became the fourth team in Ivy League history to go 10-0.
Against Harvard, the Red and Blue held a 29-7 lead, but quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick — who missed the third quarter due to an injury — pulled Harvard within eight with two big touchdown throws. Fitzpatrick ran the two-minute offense and set the Crimson up at the Penn 13-yard line with seven seconds remaining in regulation. Fitzpatrick took the snap and looked to throw in the flat, but linebacker Steve Lhotak intercepted his pass and sent the Crimson packing.
2003 would be the second — and last — time Al Bagnoli would lead the Red and Blue to an undefeated season, though he did win three Ivy League titles in his remaining time at Penn. The Quakers had 12 first-team All-Ivy selections, while offensive lineman Chris Clark was named an All-American. Mitchell earned Player of the Year honors after a 26-touchdown senior campaign. Though it wasn't an easy path, it's safe to say that Penn lived up to its preseason hype with its undefeated Ivy League championship season.