By Dave Zeitlin | Moments before he looked down to see his left foot twisted 90 degrees in the wrong direction, Penn quarterback Billy Ragone dropped back to make a pass, just as he had so many times before. He couldn’t find any receivers open, so the speedy senior took off down the middle of the field to try to pick up some extra yardage and build on the Quakers’ one-touchdown lead over heavily favored Harvard in a critical November Ivy League contest.
Ragone, the only player in Penn’s illustrious football history to have amassed over 1,000 career rushing yards and 2,000 career passing yards, was well versed in the art of running out of trouble. But on this play, he couldn’t avoid it.
As Ragone planted his left foot on the Franklin Field turf, Harvard’s Nnamdi Obukwelu swept in for a dangerously high tackle. When the Penn trainers rushed out onto the field after the whistle had blown, they stabilized the quarterback’s neck and asked if his head was okay. Ragone, who had noticed his left foot’s radical contortion before he felt any pain, responded dryly, “Look at my foot.”
At that point, without even telling him, team physician Brian Sennett M’88 popped the foot back into place. Sennett then cut Ragone’s sock and shoe off, put him into an air cast, and carted him off the field, to the cheers of both Penn and Harvard fans.
But before he disappeared into the trainer’s room, where he was told he had dislocated his ankle and fractured his fibula, Ragone pounded his fist against the turf. He knew his season—and possibly his football career—was over.
But if there was one thing that could lift Ragone’s spirits during that troubling time, it was the confidence he had in senior backup quarterback Andrew Holland, who came into the game against Harvard as soon as Ragone left it. The two had supported each other on the field—Holland got regular playing time to give Ragone the occasional rest—and were great friends off of it, rooming together on road trips and watching YouTube clips of standup comedians late into the night.
“You kind of don’t expect the starter and the backup to be such good friends,” Holland says. “But we have a really good relationship off the field, and I think that helped us on the field. There wasn’t that animosity. It was just, ‘Let’s just win. We don’t care who’s on the field.’”
Adds Ragone, “I knew Andrew could play just as good, if not better, than me.”
Holland immediately proved his teammate right. Just moments after Ragone’s injury, as cries of “Let’s win it for Billy” rose from the Penn sideline, Holland lofted a pass down the middle of the field to sophomore tight end Mitchell King, who wrestled the ball away from a Harvard defender in the back of the end zone. That touchdown gave the Quakers a 28-14 lead over the Crimson early in the fourth quarter, and proved to be enough of a cushion to hold off a dominant Harvard team that most people expected to successfully defend its 2011 Ivy League title.
The 30-21 victory—which was sealed when senior captain Brandon Copeland, who would later say he was “enraged” to see Ragone go through that kind of pain, sacked Harvard quarterback Colton Chapple in the end zone for a safety—gave Penn at least a share of its third Ivy championship in the last four years. And for head coach Al Bagnoli, who’s captured nine league crowns in 21 years at the helm, it was one of the sweetest victories of his career.
“It has to rank right up there,” Bagnoli said. “I’m not sure people outside of our locker room gave us too much of a chance in that game. They had just come off a 69-0 win. They had dominated most of their opponents. They were leading the league in all statistical categories. Fortunately, our kids came up big, and on the biggest stage played their best game of the year.”
In the final game of the year, the Quakers needed to beat Cornell to secure an outright Ivy League championship—and they needed to do it without Ragone. At that point, it became clear that Bagnoli’s decision to give Holland playing time throughout the year had been a prudent coaching decision, even if some people outside the program may have questioned why a player of Ragone’s caliber was not being used on every snap.
“I definitely would have been a lot more nervous and less prepared if I didn’t have playing experience,” Holland admits. “I never would have thought this was going to happen going into the season. I wish it didn’t happen to Bill, but I put a lot of hard work in all four years, and to have a chance to clinch it was an awesome experience.”
Making his first career start in his last career game, Holland looked like a seasoned veteran, throwing for 255 yards and a touchdown. And with the game tied with three minutes left, Holland orchestrated a 63-yard scoring drive capped by a three-yard touchdown run by sophomore Spencer Kulcsar to lift Penn to a dramatic 35-28 victory, and the program’s 13th outright Ivy League championship.
“I think that’s a great storyline,” Bagnoli said of Holland’s starting debut. “He played in every game, so that certainly prepared him. But to start in your last game as a senior and to have the outright championship on the line, and to go ahead and play as well as he did, is just a tremendous reflection on all the work Andrew put in.”
For Ragone, Holland, and the rest of Penn’s seniors, this championship was the most gratifying of the three they won, not only because it was their last but because of where they came from.
On October 20, the Quakers dropped an ugly 27-13 decision to Yale to fall to 2-4 on the season. Considering that Yale was one of the worst teams in the league (they ended up finishing in last place), and Bagnoli had to work around injuries to such important players as senior receiver Joe Holder, junior receiver Ryan Mitchell, and senior running back Brandon Colavita, it was looking like the Quakers might sputter through their second straight mediocre season.
But on the bus ride back from New Haven following that loss to Yale, Bagnoli determined to return his focus to the program’s traditional formula for success: being a physical, running football team with an aggressive defense. What followed was a last-second Homecoming win over Brown, a gutsy comeback victory at Princeton, and then the title-deciding triumphs over Harvard and Cornell. At 6-1 in the league (and 6-4 overall), the Quakers finished one game ahead of the Crimson.
“I wish it didn’t take me that long to figure it out, but eventually it kind of hit me that we were trying to be a team that we really weren’t set up to be,” Bagnoli said. “By the time we got to Harvard, we had kind of reestablished our identity. And it probably couldn’t have come at a better time.”
Perhaps the best part of the Harvard win came in the final half of the fourth quarter, when Ragone, laid out in the back of the cart with his cast on, was driven back over to the Penn sidelines. One by one, his teammates began to applaud. Some came over to give him handshakes. The NBC Sports cameras zeroed in on him. Fans cheered.
Ragone had a front-row seat to the championship-clinching victory, and when the game ended he puffed on a cigar and smiled as Holland came over to him and said just three words: “We did it.”
Ragone still has one more year of NCAA eligibility, which he plans on using. But he will have some serious rehab ahead of him to get back to the field. Holland, meanwhile, has a job lined up at an insurance brokerage in his hometown of Cleveland, his days of competitive football now in the past.
But even though the two quarterbacks are going their separate ways, they will forever be bonded by the unique circumstances surrounding Penn’s 2012 Ivy League football championship. That much seemed clear when, a week after the season ended, Ragone limped up the stairs at Weightman Hall with Holland following right behind him, carrying his friend’s crutches and scooter.
Dave Zeitlin C’03 writes frequently for the Gazette and oversees the magazine’s sports blog.