On Sept. 24, 2015, Penn football accomplished something that it hadn't in 104 years: It defeated Villanova. Capped by a 90-yard scoop and score by junior linebacker Donald Panciello, the Quakers defeated the Wildcats, 24-13, in what was the program's first win under new coach Ray Priore.
This rivalry matchup has deep historical roots, with the first matchup between these two storied universities coming in 1905, a game in which the Quakers triumphed by a score of 42-0. The teams then held an annual matchup over the next three years, all of which were won by Penn.
The two teams then played once more, on October 14, 1911, a game which the Quakers won 22-0. After those five games played in seven years, the teams didn’t meet again for 69 years, when the Wildcats beat the Quakers, 34-3, in November 1980.
The two teams played again on Sept. 25, 1999, with Villanova winning by a score of 34-6 and again in 2002, a 17-3 Wildcats victory, before beginning an annual series in 2004. Villanova proceeded to win the next 11 of these annual matchups, from 2004 to 2014, to push its all-time record in the series to 13-5.
The Quakers were coming off a rough couple years going into the 2015 season. After winning the Ivy League title three times in a four year span from 2009-2012, the Quakers went 2-8 in 2014. After the season ended, longtime head coach Al Bagnoli stepped down following a 23-year stint which featured nine Ivy League titles. Longtime coach Ray Priore was picked as a successor to Bagnoli, after 28 years in various positions on the staff.
Priore had been on the Penn coaching staff since 1987, starting off splitting his time between the varsity squad and the freshman team before fully moving onto varsity. As the years went on, Priore took on more and more responsibilities, first being appointed as outside linebacker coach when Bagnoli took over in 1992, then becoming special teams coach and becoming involved in recruiting efforts as the decade progressed.
Priore got his break in 1999, when he was chosen by Bagnoli to take over as defensive coordinator. The Quakers defense thrived under Priore, finishing top five in the Football Championship Subdivision in overall defense four times and owning the best rushing and scoring defense in the Ivy League from 2008–2010.
Going into the 2015 season, expectations were low for a squad with a first year head coach and only 13 starters returning from the previous year's 2-8 squad. Indeed, it seemed as though 2015 would be a difficult year when the Quakers dropped their opening matchup to Lehigh, a disappointing 42-21 loss.
The Quakers' second matchup was the annual Villanova game, originally slated for Saturday, Sept. 26 in Villanova Stadium. The date of the game was pushed up two days due to the pope’s visit to Philadelphia, scheduled for that Saturday.
"When you are playing a team of that explosiveness, that caliber, we really needed to control the ball," Priore said. "In addition, they knew [they] would have to go for some fourth down and short opportunities and extend drives to keep the ball out of their hands.”
The Quakers came out of the gate blazing with a nine play, 75-yard opening drive capped by a 12-yard touchdown pass to receiver Justin Watson. The special teams unit then recovered a fumble on the ensuing kickoff and the Quakers rode this momentum to a dominant first half, staying true to coach Priore’s words and taking control of the ball.
Penn had 49 offensive snaps in the first half compared to the Wildcats' 14, led by a defense that gave up only two first downs the entire half. After the opening touchdown, the teams traded turnovers until Watson turned a short completion into a 33-yard touchdown midway through the second quarter, stiff-arming and spinning his way into the end zone to extend the lead to 14-0, where the score stayed until the half.
After three scoreless possessions, the Quakers added a key field goal in the third quarter to go up 17-0. The Wildcats looked as if they were going to storm back, however, following the field goal up with a touchdown drive to cut the score to 17-7 and then forcing a punt on the ensuing Penn possession.
The Wildcats then drove all the way to the Quakers 10-yard line and looked as if they were going to cut it to a one score game. On first and goal at the Penn eight yard line, Villanova quarterback Zach Bednarczyk handed it off to running back Javon White, but senior defensive end Tyler Drake popped the ball out and Panciello returned it 90 yards for the game clinching touchdown, putting the Quakers up for good, 24-7.
“[The] defense came up big time. Our mantra was bend but don't break, let them grind it out, grind it out, and they ran a little play to the wide side of the field, [Drake] popped the ball loose, and Donnie, who is a terrific athlete, went 90 yards,” Priore said.
Villanova drove down and scored a garbage time touchdown, but it was too little too late as the Quakers secured Priore's first win. It was also the program's first win against a top-five opponent on the road in its storied history.
“I would honestly say the effort in the game was a total team effort. I thought special teams played a key role in field position," Priore said. "The kickoff coverage team recovered a fumble, obviously our offense went down very quick and early, and Alek Torgersen threw a nice pass to Justin Watson, who had two touchdowns early in that game. … There are so many other players we knew we needed to come to the forefront and they did, which was key."
The Quakers rode the momentum off the win to show what they were capable of doing, going 7-3 on the season, including 6-1 against Ivy League foes. One of the league wins was an impressive road victory at No. 12 Harvard, giving the Quakers two road wins against top-25 opponents for the first time in program history. Their 6-1 league record was enough for a share of the Ivy League crown, an impressive showing in Priore’s first season.
The Quakers showed their toughness and grit in this signature win, a trademark of Priore’s teams. It also added another impressive achievement to Priore's storied resume, one he continues to build today.
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