This just wasn’t supposed to happen. With a new coach in place for the first time in 24 years, no one was expecting the kind of scene that unfolded late Saturday afternoon at Franklin Field following Penn’s 34-21 win over Cornell.
Players thrusting one finger high in the air, while men and women of all ages hugged each other. That was followed by a spirited version of the alma mater, before an old championship winning tradition that goes back to the days of legendary Celtics coach Red Auerbach — victory cigars — were lit.
Penn’s 17th Ivy League championship, which was assured when the Quakers scored on their first three possessions before taking their foot off the gas the final three quarters, may well be most unlikely in school history. Coming off disappointing 4-6 and 2-8 seasons under longtime coach Al Bagnoli, the Quakers promptly started off the Ray Priore era 1-3.
To imagine then they’d reel off six straight W’s to finish 7-3 and earn a piece of the title with Harvard and Dartmouth at 6-1 — the first three-way tie in the Ivies since 1982 — is simply, well, unimaginable.
“It’s a testament to Coach P,” said senior nose guard Dan Connaughton, who was a freshman when the Quakers won the 2012 crown at 6-4, before things began to go downhill. “In his first year as head coach to go from 2-8 to 7-3 says a lot about his coaching ability. We got a little taste of what winning was like our freshman year and it lingers there, it sits in the back of your mind. At the beginning of the year, we had a players-only meeting and I told the guys that we had to try to do something special.
“But I don’t think I realized how special it would end up being.”
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Picked for sixth in the Ivies, the Quakers gave an early hint they might be better than suspected when they knocked off then No. 5 in the FCS Villanova, 24-13. But losses to Dartmouth and Fordham followed, leaving no margin for error.
Rather than continue to fall, the Quakers rallied behind quarterback Alek Torgerson (19 touchdowns passing, five rushing with just three interceptions), 1,000-yard receiver Justin Watson (9 catches for 133 yards and two touchdowns in the clincher), and a defense that forced 25 turnovers for the season. They reeled off convincing wins over Columbia, Yale and Brown got by rival Princeton in overtime, then stunned Harvard in Cambridge last week, snapping the Crimson’s 22-game winning streak.
Leading 20-0 by the middle of the first quarter against the overmatched 1-9 Big Red this one was settled early. The only remaining drama was whether Dartmouth and Harvard would join the Red and Blue at the top. After some anxious moments — particularly for Dartmouth at Princeton — both did.
But that will do nothing to take away from what these Quakers quite unexpectedly managed to accomplish.
"This is the most gritty team I’ve been around in my tenure here,” said Priore, who actually preceded Bagnoli’s arrival on campus, encompassing 10 Ivy titles as an assistant over 28 years. “I’m so proud of them. They probably don’t realize what they accomplished. For six straight games it's been backs to the wall.
“It's been a must-win situation. We just said, 'Stay together and take it one game at a time.'"
Six games later, to the surprise of just about everyone, the Penn Quakers are back on top in the Ivies. But while his players went out to celebrate Saturday night, Priore had something else in mind.
“I’m going to sleep,” he laughed. “I haven’t slept in 13 weeks.”
Which is only fair, because this year everyone else snoozed on Penn.