By David Coulson
College Sports Journal
PHILADELPHIA, PA. — One of my favorite things about living in the greater Philadelphia area is that every Wednesday during the college football season, I get to to travel to either the University of Pennsylvania or Villanova University campus and have lunch with two of my favorite coaches, Al Bagnoli of Penn and Andy Talley of Villanova.
Those Wednesday afternoons are made all the more fun when Penn, or Villanova are facing a big game, as I get some great insight into how these veteran coaches are planning for the weekend.
This week’s luncheon was one of those times as Bagnoli talked about his team’s preparations for its Ivy League showdown with Harvard on Saturday afternoon at Harvard Stadium.
While in the past, many people always seemed to point towards “The Game” that closes out each season between longtime rivals Harvard and Yale, in terms of Ivy League supremacy, the contest in week nine of the Ivy League season has been more important in recent years.
“When we go to the Penn game, one thing that always crossed my mind since we’ve been here is the road to the Ivy League title always goes through Penn,” Harvard coach Tim Murphy said.
It has gotten to the point where, even before the season starts, people start looking forward to the Penn-Harvard showdown.
This year’s version is the 82nd in a series that began in 1881. Harvard holds a 45-34-2 lead.
“It just happens it’s week nine, Harvard is on the schedule and it has championship implications,” Bagnoli said. “You treat it like every other game, even though it’s not like any other game.”
After losing much of the nucleus off a pair of teams that had won Ivy League titles in 2009 and 2010, things haven’t been easy for a youthful Penn squad in 2010.
The Quakers (5-3 overall, 4-1 in the Ivy League) dropped games to Lafayette and Villanova to start the season before rebounding for four consecutive wins — two of them coming in the final moments of play (a 22-20 victory at Dartmouth and a 27-20 triumph at Columbia).
But there was also a 6-0 Ivy League loss at Brown in the driving rain and then snow that turned Brown Stadium into a quagmire and made offensive football challenging to say the least.
That loss snapped Penn’s 18-game Ivy League winning streak and left the Quakers needing to win their final three games to earn a share of the Ivy League title. Penn took care of business on Saturday, beating arch-rival Princeton 37-9 after a rough start and now needs to beat Harvard and Cornell to earn a share of an unprecedented third consecutive Ivy League crown.
“There is no question we’re not as strong of a team as we have been the past two years,” said Bagnoli. “How could we be with all that we lost? But we have worked hard to get ourselves into this position.”
Harvard isn’t overlooking the Quakers, particularly after Penn scored a 34-14 victory last year at historic Franklin Field in Philadelphia.
Penn took advantage of special teams miscues to score 17 points early against the Crimson and then held Harvard to just seven points on four possessions in Quaker territory in the fourth period, ending two drives with interceptions.
In the Quakers’ last trip to Harvard, Penn won 17-7 in a rain-soaked game.
“They are really an outstanding football team,” Murphy said of Penn. “This a real big challenge for us.”
Brown (7-1, 4-1) is still in the race after a solid 35-28 victory over Yale and can earn no less than a share of the title with wins at home over Dartmouth and on the road at Columbia, combined with a Penn victory over Harvard.
Harvard (8-1, 5-0) controls its own destiny with wins over Penn and next week at Yale. The Crimson earned a spot in the driver’s seat early with a 24-7 victory at home against Brown in the second week of its season.
“Harvard has terrific kids on offense and defense, they are a handful for everybody,” said Bagnoli, who has won two straight games against Harvard and 11 of 17 meetings against Murphy. “A lot of kids we have were passed over by Harvard and we play this game with something of a chip on our shoulder.”
It is easy to view the contest of the blue-collar Penn squad against the blue bloods of Harvard in some people’s minds.
“It’s a good place to be, particularly when you consider how young we are,” said Bagnoli. “Hopefully, we will play well and come away with a ‘W.'”