PHILADELPHIA - After a recent string of close losses to Lafayette, the University of Pennsylvania football team returned the favor on Saturday. The Quakers held off the Leopards, 27-21, in the closing minutes of a rain-soaked season opener at Franklin Field.
Penn won its fifth straight game dating back to last season and earned a season-opening victory for the first time since 2010. Lafayette fell to 0-3 on the year.
The defending Ivy League champions held a 20-point lead heading into the fourth quarter, but the Leopards scored on consecutive drives to close to within one possession. With 3:01 to play, the visitors had a chance to complete the comeback. They took over at their own 38-yard line and advanced across midfield.
But the Penn defense -- which dominated the first three quarters -- came up big again. The Quakers hit the Lafayette running back in the backfield, took advantage of a botched snap, then knocked down a pass to leave the Leopards with fourth-and-29.
Lafayette tried to pull off a miracle with a lateral play that advanced the ball nearly twenty yards -- not enough for the Leopards to keep the ball -- and it was nullified by an illegal forward lateral.
Three kneeldowns later, the Quakers were 1-0.
Penn’s first drive had fans remembering last year’s opener in Easton, when a plethora of interceptions kept the Quakers from knocking off the Leopards. Senior quarterback Billy Ragone is back, of course, but was picked off on his first pass attempt of 2013.
Ragone bounced right back on the second drive, however, leading the Quakers on a 65-yard touchdown drive that ended with with a five-yard pass to a diving Ty Taylor in the corner of the end zone. A 24-yard pass to senior wideout Ryan Mitchell moved Penn into Lafayette territory, and an impressive run after the catch by senior running back Spencer Kulcsar that went for 18 yards, were instrumental to Penn's first score of the season.
The Quakers put pressure on Lafayette's quarterbacks all night. It started early as the Red and Blue had three sacks in the opening quarter and limited the Leopards to two punts and a lost fumble on their first three drives.
By keeping Lafayette deep in its own territory, Penn continued to win the field-position battle. The Quakers got the ball at the Lafayette 45-yard line and drove 32 yards before Loftus sent a kick right down the middle, giving the Quakers a 10-0 lead just before the end of the first quarter.
Lafayette got on the scoreboard on the ensuing drive with a seven-play, 63-yard effort that ended in a 29-yard touchdown pass.
The Quakers then came with a new look for the new quarter and inserted Ryan Becker at quarterback in place of Ragone. Becker worked efficiently as he completed all three of his passes for 23 yards and the Quakers moved all the way to the Lafayette 22. From there, Loftus tacked on his second field goal of the game from 39 yards out and a 13-7 lead that stuck until intermission.
On the second play of the second half, senior Tosan Eyetsemitan stepped in front of Andrew Dzurik's pass and grabbed his first career interception. It gave Penn prime field position once again. Eight players later, the Quakers were in the end zone on a four-yard touchdown catch by junior Mitchell King, Ragone's second touchdown toss of the game.
After another punt by Lafayette, the game took a turn for the downright strange as a steady rain came over Franklin Field and players and began slipping everywhere. With Penn inside Lafayette’s 10-yard line on third down, the Quakers seemed destined for doom as an errant snap flew over Ragone’s head. However, Kulcsar scooped up the loose ball on the 25-yard line and outraced several defenders to the corner where he then raced to the left corner of the end zone. That gave the Quakers a 27-7 lead with 6:11 to go in the third quarter.
At the start of the fourth quarter, Lafayette suddenly showed signs of life. In dire need of momentum, the Leopards defense forced a punt and then blocked it to take over in Penn territory. The Leopards eventually got down to Penn’s 3-yard line and running back Ross Scheuerman punched it in to cut the lead to two possessions with 10:51 to play.
At that point, the tables had turned.
The Leopards -- playing their third game of the season -- got another huge stop on defense, getting the ball back in the hands of Dzurik and the offense at their own 13-yard line with 7:34 remaining.
Just 2:03 later, Lafayette had covered the 87 yards and was only down by six.
And on defense again, the Leopards held. Bagnoli faced a difficult decision on fourth-and-one from the Quakers' 31, but opted to punt.
It’s a decision he would be happy he made, as his defense answered the final bell.
A budding rivalry, this matchup has now been decided by one possession in six of the last seven years, but prior to Saturday night, Penn had won just one of those games.
Penn outgained the Leopards, 339-240. They allowed just 1.4 yards per carry and a total of 45 rushing yards. The Quakers forced three turnovers and had six sacks -- which matched the total from the Ivy title-clinching win over Harvard in the 2012 home finale. The Red and Blue also held an 11-minute edge in time of possession.
Ragone, who became the third passer in program history to surpass 4,000 career passing yards, finished 21-for-28 for 218 yards and two scores. He now has 49 career touchdowns (19 rush, 30 pass) which is second all-time at Penn to Gavin Hoffman's 54. Senior Brandon Colavita had a team-high 56 rush yards on 15 carries. Four different receivers had five catches led by Kulcsar's 66 receiving yards.
Sebastian Jaskowski, Evan Jackson and David Park led the Quakers with five tackles apiece. Jackson added his first career interception as time elapsed in the first half. Penn's six sacks came from six different players, including one from Park and one from Eyetsemitan. Park also forced a fumble that was recovered by sophomore Austin Taps.
Penn will head to the Main Line next week when they take on Villanova in the annual Schuylkill Showdown. Kickoff from Villanova Stadium is set for 5 p.m.