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Winning and Wondering
Football’s fabulous finish; basketball’s baffling beginning.
By David Porter

The part of a football coach’s job that is spent playing psychologist has never been put to an accurate measurement, but rest assured that it is somewhere in the upper percentiles. This can take many forms, one of the most common being the downgrading of your team’s accomplishments even as they pile up week after week. It is a practice honed to perfection by Penn football coach Al Bagnoli, who seemed to spend most of the recently completed season lamenting his team’s lack of this or that quality, all the while adding victories to his already impressive coaching resume.

(Pssst … Al, it’s OK to compliment them now.)

The questions that surrounded the 2002 Quakers in August—like, say, how to replace the school’s recently graduated career rushing and passing leaders, or how to improve on the best rushing defense in the nation—were an after-thought by mid-season and completely irrelevant by the time Penn had steamrolled the rest of the Ivy League and won its third title in the last five years. In what was originally thought to be a rebuilding year, the Quakers’ dominance in winning nine of 10 games spurred comparisons to some of the great Ivy teams of the past.

Even Bagnoli was moved to voice his admiration. “The kids played at an extremely high level,” he said after a 44-9 throttling of Harvard on November 16. “I thought they played magnificently. They’ve done everything we’ve asked them to do.”

That cold, rainy day at Franklin Field was enlivened by the presence of ESPN’s GameDay crew, a show that normally confines itself to the para-professional football schools of Division 1-A. Ever the worrier, Bagnoli viewed the intrusion as just another distraction. “I don’t know how those [coaches] do it,” he said after a week filled with a larger-than-usual number of interview requests. “They must not have time to do a lot of coaching.”

The win over Harvard clinched a tie for the title, and a 31-0 victory at Cornell the next week won it outright. The shutout in Ithaca was fitting, for it was the Quakers’ defense that had been the team’s bedrock the past two seasons. With uncertainty over who would fill the shoes of record-setters Kris Ryan C’02 and Gavin Hoffman W’01 on offense, the defensive players entered the season convinced they would be the ones to shoulder the burden. “Back in spring ball, the offense was having some problems, and we just dominated them all spring,” said senior linebacker Travis Belden, a unanimous all-Ivy selection for the second consecutive year. “I said to some of the guys that we’d probably have to carry the team.”

A preseason poll that put the Quakers fourth in the Ivy League only enlarged the collective chip on their shoulder. “Absolutely,” Belden said. “We plastered that all over the locker room. We took it as an insult to the team.”

Amazingly, the defense improved on its sterling numbers of a year ago, breaking an Ivy League record for least rushing yards allowed per game and finishing first in the nation in the same category. Belden and two other seniors, fellow linebacker Steve Lhotak and safety Vince Alexander, who achieved a rare double-double with five sacks and five interceptions, often seemed to be in on every tackle and pass deflection. In particular, the secondary rose to the occasion to shut down Brown’s Chas Gessner and Harvard’s Carl Morris, two of the top wide receivers in the country.

No doubt more surprising was the Quakers’ offensive output, beginning with a 52-21 pasting of Lafayette and continuing through the Cornell game. Lacking the strong running game that has been a hallmark of the Penn program since the mid-1980s, the Quakers used an attack straight out of the American Football League, circa 1967, which meant they threw, and threw, and threw some more, and when they got tired of throwing they ran the ball a few times. Sometimes the numbers were staggering: against Harvard, senior quarterback Mike Mitchell threw for 216 yards and three touchdowns—in the first half. The running attack produced 13 yards in the same span. Mitchell, who hadn’t played since the fall of 2000, was a revelation, throwing for more than 2,800 yards and 20 touchdowns. Senior receiver Rob Milanese broke school records for receptions and receiving yards and finished his career having caught a pass in every game in which he appeared. The sum total was a team that defeated its Ivy opponents by more than 30 points per game, surpassing the mark set by Dartmouth in 1970.

Good teams excel at the little things as well as the big things, and Penn can claim that for itself, too. From fourth-down conversion rate to kicking accuracy to tackles for losses, the Quakers did it all—including getting some well-deserved praise from their coach.

Eight years ago, Penn opened its men’s basketball season in less than inspiring fashion, losing at home to a beatable Canisius team in the Preseason NIT and needing some late heroics to save a victory at lowly-regarded Lehigh. Why mention this? Because the current edition of the Quakers led by seniors Ugonna Onyekwe, Koko Archibong, and Andrew Toole has already drawn comparisons to the 1994-95 team led by Matt Maloney C’95 and Jerome Allen W’95 that is considered the best the school has produced in more than two decades. Talent-wise, it may be a toss-up; unfortunately, the 2002-03 Quakers’ perplexing start has provided another, unwanted parallel.

The high expectations that accompanied Penn into this season were justified after last season’s 25-7 finish, which included 10 consecutive wins to reach the NCAA Tournament. Whether or not those expectations created complacency or some other, intangible effect, the Quakers’ performance in their first three games was baffling at best. A blowout win against a dreadful Penn State team was quickly erased by losses to Drexel and Delaware, both of which Penn defeated a year ago.

The losses served notice that if the Quakers don’t always bring their ‘A’ game with them, their opponents will be more than happy to bring theirs.

“The last time that we got this much notoriety was with Jerome and Matt,” coach Fran Dunphy said after the loss to Drexel. “I think we started to believe we’re better than we really are. We aren’t sharing the ball enough. There was a stretch when we thought we all had to do it on our own, and we can’t afford to do that. We have to be more understanding of who we are.”

Gazette sports columnist David Porter C’82 is the author of Fixed: How Goodfellas Bought Boston College Basketball.


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Copyright 2003 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 01/05/03



SCOREBOARD

From Oct. 5 to Dec. 1

Men’s Basketball (1-1)
Penn 62, Penn State 37
Drexel 71, Penn 62
Women’s Basketball (1-1)
Temple 78, Penn 71
Penn 81, Drexel 77

Field Hockey (6-11)
Dartmouth 4, Penn 3
Temple 1, Penn 0
Syracuse 2, Penn 1
Penn 6, La Salle 3
Penn 4, Columbia 2
Penn 3, Georgetown 2
Yale 2, Penn 1
Penn State 2, Penn 0
Penn 2, Brown 1
Princeton 3, Penn 0

Men’s Cross Country
Pre-National Meet
Heptagonal Championships, 7th Place
NCAA Districts, 5th Place
NCAA Championships, 26th Place

Women’s Cross Country
Heptagonal Championships, 8th Place
NCAA Championships, 10th Place

Football (9-1)
Villanova 17, Penn 3
Penn 44, Columbia 10
Penn 41, Yale 20
Penn 31, Brown 7
Penn 44, Princeton 13
Penn 44, Harvard 9
Penn 31, Cornell 0

Sprint Football (4-2)
Army 17, Penn 16
Penn 22, Cornell 0
Navy 48, Penn 0
Penn 55, Princeton 18

Men’s Golf
Pennsylvania Invitational, 2nd Place

Women’s Golf
Rutgers Invitational, 6th Place

Men’s Soccer (10-3-1)
Lehigh 1, Penn 0
Penn 1, Columbia 0
Penn 1, Rutgers 0
Penn 2, Yale 1
Penn 1, Brown 0
Penn 0, Princeton 0
Harvard 2, Penn 1

Women’s Soccer (7-6-3)
Princeton 2, Penn 1
Delaware 1, Penn 0
Penn 2, Columbia 2
Penn 1, Yale 1
Penn 2, Brown 0
Penn 2, Dartmouth 1

Men’s Squash (0-1)
Cornell 7, Penn 2

Women’s Squash (1-0)
Penn 9, Cornell 0

Men’s Swimming
Princeton 140, Penn 103

Women’s Swimming
Princeton 213, Penn 84
Cornell 203, Penn 95

Men’s Rowing Lightweight
Navy Day Regatta, 6th Place

Women’s Rowing
Navy Day Regatta, 1st Place

Volleyball (21-5)
Penn 3, Columbia 1
Cornell 3, Penn 1
Penn 3, William & Mary 0
Penn 3, Yale 0
Penn 3, Brown 1
Penn 3, Harvard 1
Penn 3, Dartmouth 0
Penn 3, Cornell 0
Penn 3, Columbia 0
Penn 3, Dartmouth 0
Penn 3, Harvard 0
Penn 3, Brown 0
Penn 3, Yale 0
Penn 3, Princeton 1

Wrestling
Michigan State Open, 7th Place
Keystone Classic, 1st Place