By David Coulson
College Sports Journal
PHILADELPHIA, PA. — On a sun-kissed Saturday that would have even impressed a Pennsylvania native named Fred Rogers, Villanova and Penn faced off again in their odd, but intriguing rivalry with the weighty expectations of their individual legacies as big of an opponent as the team looking at them from the opposing sideline.
It was indeed a beautiful day in the Franklin Field neighborhood, Mr. Rogers. Particularly beautiful for the blue-clad Villanova Wildcats on this blue-skied afternoon, as they outlasted the Penn Quakers, 24-8.
However, this annual battle of University City vs the Main Line for the real bragging rights of Philadelphia college football — Temple may have won the "Mayor's Cup" in the past two years, but does anyone really care about the gridiron Owls? — has become a gut-wrenching practice for the two legendary coaches involved.
Andy Talley knows his Villanova Wildcats (3-1) are suppose to win this game every year, just as they have every year since the series was reinstituted on an annual basis in 2004 and just as the Cats have done since the modern era of the rivalry resumed in 1980.
Eleven games and 11 wins for Nova before Saturday in a time frame that was interrupted when the Wildcats made the mistake of dropping football after the 1980 season — which included the first win ever for the Wildcats over the Quakers, 34-3.
A couple of weeks later, Villanova drilled Temple 23-7 and then rode off into the sunset until Talley resurrected the program in 1985, a tricky maneuver on an Augustinian campus that treasures theological pursuits more adroitly than athletic exploits.
Since 2002, Villanova has met Penn 10 times in 11 years and almost all of those games have left Talley with a few less hairs to scratch on that silver head.
Outside of a 2007 game where a sore-shouldered quarterback named Robert Irvin — playing one of the final games of his injury-shortened career — fired five of the seven interceptions the Quakers gave up that evening (the first Penn-Villanova game this writer witnessed, incidentally), these contests had been painstaking close for the Wildcats.
And excruciatingly frustrating for one Al Bagnoli, the veteran Penn coach who will one day have a statute residing in Franklin Field just like the one depicting the iconic George Munger.
Saturday was Bagnoli's record-200th game as the Quaker's headman and despite his school-standard 136 victories, this fireball on the sidelines still hasn't gotten the best of one of his closest friends, Talley.
Bagnoli's Quakers would throw everything into beating the Wildcats on this Saturday, just like they had in the previous 11 encounters between the two coaches.
Penn won five times against Villanova from 1905 through 1911, but like the Chicago Cubs trying to win the World Series, the Quakers are staring at over a century of futility against the Wildcats.
Bagnoli has come to expect a lose when the Franklin Field clock hits zero, just like Wily Coyote anticipates getting hit by that Acme-brand anvil as he chases the Road Runner.
The sense of doom may have engulfed the Quakers a little sooner on this Saturday.
Penn held Villanova to one first down on the opening possession of the game and then watched running back Jeff Jack race 49 yards on the Quakers' second play from scrimmage to give Penn its first scoring opportunity.
The Cat defense, with its elastic mentality stopped the Quakers at the 26 to set up a 43-yard field goal attempt by talented sophomore kicker Connor Loftus.
Loftus may have chosen the academics of Penn over major college football, but he is still trying to harness his considerable talents at the Ivy-League level and his kick hooked and sailed far to the left of the uprights.
It looked like another boulder falling towards Wily Coyote's unprotected head.
"Obviously, you want to score and get some momentum," said Bagnoli. "To (Villanova's) credit, they said okay and took it down the field."
With redshirt freshman quarterback John Robertson directing the Wildcats down the field and firing lasers to the emerging Joe Price (five catches, 113 yards receiving) at wide receiver, Villanova needed only five plays to work the ball down the field — the final one being a connection between Robertson and senior captain Norman White, who made a leaping, NFL-styled grab in the end zone from 14 yards out, wrestling the ball away from a Quaker defender.
White, a preseason All-American, had been considered questionable for this game after partially tearing the labrum in one of his shoulders in last week's 31-10 win over Rhode Island, but he gave the expected maximum effort when he was on the field.
"It was a real confidence builder for us (when Penn missed the early field goal)," said sophomore linebacker Dylan Lucas, who had six tackles, 1 1/2 tackles for loss and contributed on one sack. "We always say bend, but don't break."
Talley agreed that the field goal attempt was an early turning point in this game.
"The field goal miss always hurts, because (Penn) had gotten into position to score," Talley explained. "Even three (points) is a confidence booster."
With that early 7-0 lead, Villanova let its defense lead for the rest of the game, giving Robertson and company time to build some consistency on offense.
Dependable Mark Hamilton added a 41-yard field goal midway through the second period to give VU a 10-0 halftime edge and Robertson directed a pair of second-half touchdown drives that built the lead to a surprising 24-0.
Robertson (13-of-20 for 213 yards passing, eight carries for 55 yards rushing) scored once on the ground — aided by an obvious hold by one of his linemen to set him free for a 26-yard scoring scramble — and Kevin Monangai (17 carries, 109 yards) pounded a tiring Quaker defense for a 14-yard touchdown.
With Villanova's defense blanketing Penn quarterbacks Billy Ragone — who was slowed by a bruised collarbone — and Andrew Holland and limiting the Quakers to 48 yards in the first three quarters.
"As always, this is really a rough game for us," said Talley. "Our defense carried us through the game. We came out (on offense) in the second half and did a better job executing. (But) we won this game with our defense today."
The biggest question after Villanova scored in the fourth quarter wasn't whether the Wildcats would win, but if Bagnoli's 199-game string of never being shutout would survive.
With eight minutes to salvage something, Holland finally found his comfort zone and led the Quakers on a 10-play, 76-yard drive that culminated with a five-yard pass to Connor Scott for the touchdown.
When Holland hit Eric Fiore in the back of the end zone for two points, you began to wonder if Penn would have a finishing kick to rival several of the other Quaker-Wildcat games?
Loftus had a chance to work some magic when his onside kick attempt soared over Villanova's front line of defense, reminiscent of a successful effort by Loftus in a win against Yale last season.
But the well-prepared Kelvin Gulyas dashed into position to make a heady fair catch and Villanova had adverted any additional butterflies.
"I'm disappointed with the way we played," said Bagnoli, while praising Talley and the Wildcats. "Villanova is getting progressively better. They have the possibility to be a pretty good team. They are going to cause some teams headaches."
Villanova's next challenge is a trip to Maine, as the Wildcats seek to prove themselves against another Colonial Athletic Association opponent.
Bagnoli hasn't discovered if his squad is up to the same promise as it readies itself for Ivy League play with a game at Dartmouth next Saturday.
"We've got to figure out why we're not getting better, the impatient coach said after his team opened the season with its second-consecutive loss, a week after a 28-21 defeat at Lafayette. "We have to learn from this game, correct some things and turn the page."
Bagnoli is just glad that he can wait another year before worrying about Villanova again.