By David Coulson
College Sports Journal
PHILADELPHIA, PA. — Penn football coach Al Bagnoli said earlier this week that it was surprising to him that a school with Princeton’s resources had gone almost seven years since its last Ivy League championship.
“They win in everything else,” Bagnoli explained. “They have great facilities, they have a beautiful campus, why wouldn’t they win in football? Obviously, they have underachieved in the past few years.”
Spoken by a coach who has directed his Quaker program to three of the past four Ivy League crowns and has nine Ancient Eight titles in his 21 years at Penn.
With two weeks remaining in the Ivy League football season, it appears the days of Princeton underachievement are over after Saturday’s 38-26 victory over Penn at Franklin Field in the 105th meeting of this storied series.
The win puts the Tigers (7-1 overall, 5-0 in league) a victory from a share of the Ivy League crown. Should Princeton beat Yale at home next week, the Tigers would clinch a part of their first title since 2006 and should Penn beat Harvard on the road, Princeton would have the championship outright.
The Tigers could also win without any help by beating both Yale at home and then Dartmouth on the road in their final two games.
Early on in Saturday’s de facto Ivy League title clash, it looked like Franklin Field would continue to be Princeton’s personal chamber of horrors and that Penn would continue in its role as the Tigers’ chief torturer.
Penn (4-4, 3-2) jumped to a 16-0 lead less than 18 minutes into the game and forced the Football Championship Subdivision’s third-ranked offense into three consecutive three and outs to open the game.
Defense was the Quakers’ calling card in the first period, with Penn scoring a safety when Princeton right tackle Mike Ramos was called for holding in the end zone and Penn defensive end Sam Chwarzynski deflected a Quinn Epperly pass and maneuvered his way 61 yards for a touchdown at the 1:37 mark.
Spencer Kulcsar’s 49-yard rushing romp (14 carries, 83 yards total) moved the ball to the Princeton three early in the second period and Kyle Wilcox (15 carries, 89 yards) dashed the final six yards for the Quakers’ first touchdown to complete the early outburst.
But a series of Penn mistakes, particularly six turnovers, turned the tide of momentum back to Princeton.
Coming off a game last week against Cornell, where he had set several NCAA Division I, Ivy League and Princeton records for passing efficiency — including 29 consecutive pass completions — Epperly had his struggles early and was even knocked out of the game on one big hit in the first quarter.
Any thoughts that Epperly might get another streak going early were ended when he sailed his first pass of the game high off the hands of Connor Kelly on the cold and windy day and incomplete.
Epperly didn’t miss a pass until the third quarter against Cornell, but then he wasn’t playing against Penn’s physically demanding defense.
“I think our guys can say that is the best defense we’ve played against,” said third-year Princeton coach Bob Surace. “They made it really uncomfortable. It was a physical battle. It was almost NFL-esque.”
It took until the second period, for Princeton’s junior, left-handed, signal-caller began to get the Tiger offense in sync.
Epperly (32-of-45 passing for 268 yards and two TDs, 13 carries for 53 yards and two TDs rushing) led Princeton on an 11-play, 71-yard drive, hitting Seth DeValve on a bootleg pass from 10 yards out for a touchdown and then getting away a pass as he was hit to Roman Wilson in the back corner of the end zone for two points to slice Penn’s lead in half at 16-8.
A field goal by Nolan Bieck from 27 yards after Mike Zeuki recovered a Kulcsar fumble at the Penn 48 made it a 16-11 contest.
Princeton finally earned its first lead at 17-16 when Elijah Mitchell tipped a pass from Penn quarterback Billy Ragone, grabbed it and raced 59 yards for a Tiger defensive score.
Penn struck back before the half ended when Ragone capped off a quick five-play drive by humming a 34-yard strike to Ryan Mitchell in the end zone to give the Quakers a 23-17 advantage with 12 second remaining in the first half.
But Princeton was able to limit Penn to just three points in the second half, while converting three scoring drives to put away the win.
“We played with great effort, but we made too many mistakes,” said Bagnoli. “That was our demise.”
Epperly powered in twice on runs from two yards and one yard out to give the Tigers a 31-23 lead with 13:10 remaining and then found Kelly for a beautiful 14-yard strike with 4:45 left that put the game out of reach with a 12-point edge.
“It wasn’t a pretty game offensively, but we found a way to win,” said Epperly.
And now the Tigers can turn their focus even more towards that elusive Ivy League championship.
“This testament to every single player we have,” said Mitchell, one of the seniors that endured back-to-back 1-9 seasons just a short time ago. “We feel that we are trying to rise from the bottom. We’re not done. What we are trying to accomplish, we’re not finished yet.”