By Dave Zeitlin | When Brandon Copeland walked off the muddy field at Brown Stadium last October, the driving rain providing a messy backdrop to a messy game, one thought kept making the rounds through the junior defensive lineman’s tired and confused mind: Did that really just happen? “Not to make it sound like a movie or anything,” says Copeland, “but it was kind of surreal.”
Copeland had good reason to be emotional. Before that October 29 game, when Penn dropped an ugly 6-0 contest to the Bears in terrible weather conditions, the Quakers had won 18 straight Ivy League games, the second-longest winning streak in conference history. That meant that Copeland had never been on the wrong end of an Ivy League score during his college career, which made the first loss all the more bizarre and dreamlike.
“We didn’t know what it felt like to lose,” he recalls, “and I don’t think we knew how much it would hurt.” Things only hurt more from there, as the Quakers lost two of their next three games to drop out of contention for their third straight Ivy League title and finish the 2011 season with a pedestrian 5-5 record. “It spiraled out of control pretty quickly,” Copeland admits.
Heading into the 2012 season, the Quakers have a different feel. No longer worried about maintaining a streak or repeating a championship, their attention has shifted to reclaiming what they believe is their rightful position atop the Ivy League.
“The past couple of years have been more about defending what’s ours,” as Copeland puts it. “This year, there’s more of a revenge aspect to it.”
Is this season about revenge? Sitting in his office on an early August afternoon, a couple of weeks before training camp, Penn football coach Al Bagnoli laughs.
“I don’t know if revenge is the right word,” he says. “I think we were all disappointed with how things unfolded. And I think we all think we can do better. I think I can do better. I think the coaches think they can do better. And the kids think they can do better.”
How much better the Quakers can do likely rests on the broad shoulders of Copeland, who was voted captain by his teammates for his senior season. The 6-foot-3, 260-pound defensive lineman is just Penn’s second sole captain since 1977 and the first since safety John Bishop W’97 handled the duties by himself in 1997.
“It’s very rare,” Bagnoli says. “Basically he was so far and away viewed by his peers as an exceptional leader by all standards—on the field, off the field, in the weight room, on the running track—and nobody was close. And that’s just a tremendous reflection of the kid’s makeup.”
To relieve some of the pressure, Bagnoli says other players will serve as game captains alongside Copeland. But the two-time All-Ivy honoree is prepared to embrace his role as senior leader, fueled both by the chip on his shoulder from last season’s 1-3 finish and the gloomy but motivating realization that these next couple of months could very well mark the last time he plays competitive football.
“The only thing I’m thinking about this year is trying to lead this team,” says Copeland, who’s played in 29 straight games for the Quakers. “This is the last year you can legally hit someone and not be sent to jail, so you’ve got to let it all out, you know?”
Copeland, who finished with a career-high 51 tackles last season, will anchor a defense that needs to replace Ivy League Defensive Player of the Year Finalist Erik Rask W’12, among other key losses. But it’s nothing like last season, when the Quakers went into the 2011 campaign after graduating 33 players and then were further decimated by a series of injuries, forcing Bagnoli to redshirt many of his top newcomers.
“It was not a good combination,” the Penn coach says. “But we look at our positions now, coming out of spring, and it’s much different. We never had a chance to see what [cornerbacks] Ade Jackson and Kevin Ijoma could do last year. They were our two top-rated freshmen coming in and we never had them. Now we see them in the spring and are like, ‘Oh this is the reason why we recruited them. They’re pretty good.’”
Another talented player returning from injury is junior wide receiver Conner Scott, who is poised to replace Ryan Calvert C’11 as the team’s No. 1 aerial target. Scott has only made 10 catches in his college career and sat out all of last season with a broken left arm but Bagnoli is not tempering expectations about the 6-foot-4 receiver, calling him an “exceptional kid” and even comparing him to Penn great Miles Masik C’96 for his playmaking ability. Penn quarterback Billy Ragone agrees, saying, “We’re looking for Conner to really explode onto the scene.”
If he stays healthy, Scott will be fortunate enough to have a player like Ragone throwing him the football. Last season, the dual-threat QB engineered the fifth-best offensive season in program history by amassing 2,284 yards of total offense (1,860 passing, 424 rushing). But despite the huge numbers, Bagnoli called Ragone’s play a “microcosm” of the 2011 campaign: brilliant sometimes, mistake-prone and erratic other times. The longtime head coach is hoping for more consistency from his dynamic signal-caller this season, and Ragone believes he’s headed down that path.
“I just have to continue to improve throwing the football, and I have to limit turnovers, which cost us a few games down the stretch,” he says. “That’s something we’ve been harping on, myself and the coaches, so we don’t limit our opportunities to put points on the board.”
Penn will have less depth at the quarterback position because of a preseason knee injury to the experienced junior backup Ryan Becker. But with most of the offensive line and a trio of talented running backs in seniors Brandon Colavita, Lyle Marsh, and Jeff Jack returning, the Quakers should be able to pile up points and perhaps not rely as much on fourth-quarter comebacks as they did last year, when their first three Ivy wins were filled with more nervous drama than Bagnoli probably cared for. “As a group we feel like we can have a great season, put up some big numbers and really surprise some people,” says Ragone, a senior who still has two years of eligibility remaining because of a freshman-year injury.
At this point, it’s probably hard for the Penn football program to do anything too surprising. Under Bagnoli, the Quakers have captured eight outright Ivy League championships in 20 years, including three separate back-to-back undefeated crowns (1993-1994, 2002-2003, and 2009-10). And it looks like Penn will be able to maintain its place as one of the league’s elite teams for the foreseeable future, with Bagnoli calling this incoming group of freshmen the most “selective class we’ve ever had during my tenure”—which, in many ways, is a testament to the school’s upgraded facilities, especially the Weiss Pavilion [“Gazetteer,” Sept|Oct 2010].
It could be argued the only thing that would be surprising about the 2012 campaign is if the Quakers fail to win more games than they lose for a second straight year. But that’s not something they believe will happen. There was too much bad luck last year and too many good players this year for them not to return to their dominant ways when they open the season at Lafayette on September 15 and then begin Ivy play on September 29 versus Dartmouth.
“I think we are re-energized and refocused and recommitted,” Bagnoli says. “And we want to try to get this thing back to where we think it should be.”
Dave Zeitlin C’03 writes frequently for the Gazette and oversees the magazine’s sports blog (penngazettesports.com).