PHILADELPHIA - The University of Pennsylvania and Harvard football teams have been the Ivy League’s dominant programs in recent years, with one or the other winning the championship each of the last five years and 10 of the 12 in this century.
In August, a preseason media poll predicted that trend to continue; they picked Harvard to defend its title from a year ago, and put Penn second.
On Saturday at Franklin Field, the No. 25/16 Crimson and Quakers met, and just as the media had predicted the game had championship implications -- the winner would guarantee itself a share of the crown.
The teams kicked off just after high noon on national television; over the next three hours, they engaged in a battle that lived up to the level of these championship programs.
Penn won the day, taking a 30-21 decision that was not wrapped up until the final seconds. However, it was a game that, as it wore on, made you realize you were watching something special regardless of how it turned out.
At 5-1 in the league, Penn clinches a share of its 16th Ivy League title, and its third in the last four years. Head Coach Al Bagnoli has been at the helm for nine of them.
Playing in their final home game on Saturday, the members of Penn’s senior class join the Classes of 1985, 1986, 1987 and 2004 in earning three rings during their careers.
In addition to its title implications, the win was also Penn’s first over a ranked opponent since 2006.
There is still the matter of next Saturday. Penn goes to Cornell to face a Big Red squad that dropped 48 points on them a year ago in a 10-point Cornell win at Franklin Field. In other words, the outright title is hardly a gimme. Kickoff will be 12:30 p.m. in Ithaca, N.Y.
Two other teams, meanwhile, will be hoping the Big Red can repeat the feat and allow them to gain a share of the championship. One of them, of course, is Harvard -- now 4-2 in Ivy play, the Crimson face Yale in The Game next Saturday at noon in Cambridge. Princeton is also 4-2, and the Tigers host Dartmouth next Saturday in at 1 p.m.
Back to the game.
Both teams played hard-nosed football, but there was no discernible trash talk. At the end, the players met at midfield and shook hands, congratulating each other on a job well done and showing the respect that these programs have for each other. Greatness knows, understands, and respects greatness.
The scene that typified this day? It wasn’t any of the scoring plays, or the hard hits. It was the last play of the third quarter. Penn quarterback Billy Ragone, who had been a monster to that point, ran the ball up the middle. He went down from what looked like a mean tackle around his neck. He never got up.
It wasn’t the neck. It was his ankle. Turned out he had fractured it on the play. The trainers hadn’t even reached him, but he took his helmet off and pounded the turf with his fists. He knew. This senior, who has meant so much to the program the last three years, was done. In perhaps his final home game, he would have to watch the final quarter conclude from the sidelines. Next week’s finale at Cornell? Out of the question.
After several minutes of attending to him on the field, the trainers got him onto the back of their truck and carted him over to Weightman Hall for X-rays and treatment. As they drove off the field, fans on both sides of the field stood and applauded. The Harvard coaches applauded. The Harvard players applauded. And how could you not? On the Ivy League’s biggest stage, he was a warrior.
When it was over, Ragone was still on the back of that cart, sitting on the Penn sideline. It was poignant, watching how many of the Harvard players walked all the way over -- through the Penn players, student and alums who had stormed the field to celebrate this title -- to shake Ragone’s hand and congratulate him.
Greatness knows, understands, and respects greatness.
Outside of the Penn locker room, you would have had a hard time finding someone who gave the Quakers a chance in Saturday’s contest. The Red and Blue wasted no time answering the naysayers, taking the opening kickoff and needing just 2:45 to drive 69 yards for a touchdown. The scoring play was a beauty, as Ragone led the Harvard defense to believe he was going underneath with a pass, and instead went over the top to a wide-open Conner Scott for a 32-yard touchdown.
After its touchdown the Penn defense made its first appearance of the day and swarmed Harvard for a three-and-out deep in Crimson territory. After the punt, the Quakers took over on their own 48.
Football is a game of momentum, though, and at this point it switched sides. Penn’s first offensive play was nullified by a holding penalty, and then Ragone’s pass was intercepted by Harvard’s Chris Splinter near midfield on the next play. Just six plays and 2:22 later, Colton Chapple ran it in from four yards and the score was tied at 7-7.
Penn responded. Thanks in part to a 47-yard run by Lyle Marsh, the Quakers ended up going 81 yards in 10 plays and found paydirt when Ragone ran it just inside the right pylon for a 14-7 lead at the 3:09 mark of the opening quarter.
Harvard tied it again, driving 72 yards down the field to start the second quarter. The eight-play drive put points on the board when Trevor Scales ran it in from a yard out on the left side.
Penn used a sustained drive to go in front a third time. Taking 11 plays and driving 84 yards in a drive that took almost five minutes, the Quakers went up 21-14 when Ragone -- who had a pair of nice runs on the drive -- found a wide-open Ryan O’Malley on the left side.
The teams went scoreless in the third quarter, but Penn doubled its lead shortly after Ragone’s injury. Senior Andrew Holland, who has had more than his share of reps this fall, came on and picked up where Ragone left off. He handed off twice to senior Lyle Marsh, both times for two-yard gains, then lofted a beautiful pass into the end zone that sophomore tight end Mitchell King wrested away from a Harvard defender to make the score 28-14. The drive covered 87 yards -- 65 of them engineered by Ragone, 22 by Holland.
Harvard put the wake-up call to good use. The Crimson hurried down the field, needing just 3:13 to run eight plays that covered 64 yards and led to their third touchdown of the day. The touchdown came on third-and-goal, as tight end Kyle Juszczyk slipped through the line and got wide open on the left side where Chapple easily hit him for a 1-yard score.
So 10:42 was left when Penn got the ball back, its lead back to a single possession. The fans had to get a little unnerved when the Quakers went to Marsh three times and could not get a first down, forcing a punt. The defense responded, though; after Harvard gained 11 yards on its first play, the Crimson went 3-and-out and had to punt back.
Now there was 7:06 to play, and once again Penn could not help itself on offense. Again the Quakers punted. At the other end, there were no first downs to be had for Harvard, the big play being an option to the right on third-and-1 that junior cornerback Dan Wilk snuffed out when he tackled Scales for a one-yard loss. With the ball on its own 22 and just over four minutes left, Harvard coach Tim Murphy punted.
On its third drive with Holland at the helm, Penn finally broke through. Against the top-ranked rush defense in the nations, Marsh ran for seven yards of his career-high 130 yards, then five more to gain a big first down near midfield. With the clock inside three minutes, and the field tilted in its favor, the Quakers ran three straight times and forced the Crimson to use all three of their timeouts. Finally, Lopano punted and Harvard’s Scott Miller took a fair catch at his 11 with 1:38 to play.
Harvard fans were hoping for a miracle score. They got a score, all right. No miracle, though.
On first down, Chapple was sacked for a yard loss by sophomore linebacker Dan Davis. On second down, another sack, this time for seven yards, by sophomore defensive end Feerooz Yacoobi. Third down? The dagger. Chapple never stood a chance against the Quakers’ withering rush, and perhaps poetically it was Penn’s solitary captain this year, Brandon Copeland, who wrapped Chapple up in the end zone for the safety that delivered another Ivy League championship.
On Senior Day, Penn's Senior Class of 2013 finished their careers at Franklin Field with a 12-1 (92.3%) record against Ivy opponents.
In his three quarters of action, Ragone was 8-of-17 through the air for 108 yards and two touchdowns. He has 3,999 career pass yards - third-most in Penn history. Ragone's 95 rushing yards marked the second-highest total of his career. His top target was Scott, who finished with four catches for 72 yards.
Lopano was an unsung hero as six of his eight punts pinned the third-highest scoring offense in the FCS inside the 20-yard line. Harvard's 21 points were its fewest since its last visit to Franklin Field - a 34-14 Ivy-title clinching win for Penn on Nov. 13, 2010.
Senior cornerback Dave Twamley, who added an interception for the second consecutive week, led the Quakers with eight tackles. Junior safety Sebastian Jaskowski had seven tackles and two pass breakups. Copeland finished with two sacks to give him 10 for his career and had five tackles in all. Wilk added six tackles to go along with his second interception of the season and first since the opener at Lafayette.
Harvard had ranked fourth in the nation in offense at a clip of 507.3 yards per game, but Penn held the Crimson to 295 on the day. The Crimson also led the nation in sacks entering the day, but finished with zero. Penn on the other hand, who entered the game with just 11 sacks on the year, finished with a season-high six.
Penn's quest to earn a ninth outright Ivy League title under Coach Bagnoli can be heard on WFIL 560 AM or the Penn Sports Network next Saturday.