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Unlikely heroes emerge as Penn ends losing streak

Penn set an Ivy League record winning its 18th straight wins over Columbia Saturday.

Penn head coach Al Bagnoli will coach the Quakers for one last season before walking away. Credit: UPenn Athletics Penn head coach Al Bagnoli will coach the Quakers for one last season before walking away. Credit: UPenn Athletics

When Penn met Columbia Saturday in a game between teams who’d lost their last 23 games combined, with both surrendering at least 60 points in their previous outing, a long string of futility would finally end for one of them.

It turned out to be the host Quakers, who took the visitors apart 31-7, making it an Ivy League record 18 straight wins over an opponent to snap an eight-game losing streak.

To make victory even sweeter, Penn’s first two touchdowns came from players who had to work their way back from injuries that cost them the entire 2013 season. First, Eric Fiore, sidelined by hip and shoulder surgeries six months apart, romped 12 yards to score Penn's first touchdown. Filling in at tailback with three players down, he carried nine times for 42 yards and also just missed taking a 47 yard screen pass to the house.

Then in the second, junior tight end Ryan Kelly , who has fought through injury woes, hauled in a seven-yard touchdown pass from Alek Torgersen to put the Quakers ahead to stay. Kelly, too, nearly had a second score later, pulled down at the two on a 14-yard pass.

"It’s nice when people work hard, persevere and fight through adversity," said Penn’s Al Bagnoli, whose 1-4 Quakers still believe they can make their coach’s final year at the helm a success. "It speaks volumes for them and it’s nice for those guys to be rewarded."

In Fiore’s case it’s was especially gratifying.

"I missed spring practice and had a rough pre-season coming back," admitted the senior from Whitehall, PA, who was the second best kick returner in the Ivies as a sophomore. "I was pretty confident I’d come back.It just took me awhile. Some of it’s mental. You try to stay in shape, but that’s different than running, cutting, running routes. The natural things you do as a football player.I’m glad I was able to produce and help the team today."

So was Kelly, who grew up literally in the shadow of Villanova Stadium, but chose to come to Penn instead.

I was in a boot for 10 weeks,’’ said Kelly, "then I was able to start running around and trying to put on some weight and learning the plays.To get a chance to contribute is awesome. I was really happy to help the team and see all the hard work I’ve put in the past year pay off.To put the team ahead like that was perfect."

Now can the Quakers sustain it? It’s one thing beating 0-5 Columbia, who's now lost 16 in a row stretching back to November, 2012. But with Ivy powers Yale, Princeton and Harvard still ahead can Penn yet salvage Bagnoli’s final season?

"He definitely tries not to make it a point of emphasis and make everything about us," said Fiore, who filled in admirably at his new position considering he had just three practices to learn it. "but I think all of us have that in mind.It’s unfortunate we couldn’t bring him more success first part of the season. Hopefully, we can finish strong and send him off with a solid season because he definitely deserves it.It took us five weeks and our second Ivy game to get going But better late than never, I guess."

Funny, he just as easily could’ve been talking about Ryan Kelly and himself.

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