By David Porter | Penn’s football season began in solemn remembrance, quickly sailed into familiar waters with an opening win followed by another frustrating loss to an old nemesis, then emerged with a reaffirmation of the Quakers’ position in what figured to be one of the more competitive races in recent Ivy League history.
Along the way, Al Bagnoli became the winningest coach in the school’s history, a long anticipated achievement that could only have been denied if he had chosen to take his talents elsewhere.
“It shows you’re old,” Bagnoli said with a chuckle in the week leading up to the Quakers’ 31-10 win over Bucknell that secured his 125th win at Penn, one more than George Woodruff tallied from 1892 to 1901. “That’s the first thing that dawns on you, and also that it can’t be this long that you’ve been at one school. It’s a great reflection on the players we’ve had and the coaches, and not just one individual.”
Two individuals weighed heavily on the hearts and minds of Penn’s players and coaches as the season began, one for his decades-long devotion to the program and the other for his deep but tragically brief impact on the current team. Beloved coach and motivator Dan “Lake” Staffieri died at 85 last spring, three weeks before defensive lineman Owen Thomas W’11 killed himself (see previous story). Both were honored before Penn’s 19-14 win over Lafayette at Franklin Field on September 18, Thomas by 40 seconds of silence to symbolize his uniform number.
Part of the job of maintaining a balance in the face of Thomas’ death has fallen to Bagnoli, who steered his 2004 team through an emotional valley after Kyle Ambrogi W’06 took his own life midway through the season.
“It’s an issue that’s not going to go away because we had the ceremony in week one,” Bagnoli said. “He’s going to be front and center each week. We’re going to have to do a good job of concentrating on the game and at the same time show a little tasteful remembrance to the kid. It’s a balancing act we have to do, but the kids have done a really good job of recognizing Owen but not dwelling on it.”
The team keeps Thomas’ jersey behind the defensive bench during games, and his uniform and cleats still hang in his locker. Beyond that, senior linebacker Zach Heller said, the players have been expressing their feelings as each sees fit.
“For the most part, we try to remember how hard he played and how much he loved the game,” Heller said. “It’s not something we talk about all the time, but it’s always mentioned before games, and some guys wear a bracelet with his number and a lot of guys will write 40 on their tape or on their jerseys.”
Thomas was a rock-solid presence on one of the nation’s best defenses last fall, and his teammates have done their best to carry on that tradition. Through four games they had allowed an average of 75 rushing yards per game, second only to Dayton among NCAA Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division I-AA) schools. That they had allowed about 18 points per game in that span could be cause for concern until you remember that last year’s squad allowed only slightly less, a little more than 15, before it went on a tear and relinquished a total of 34 points over its last six games.
This team may be hard pressed to duplicate that feat; the Ivies seem too strong top to bottom for that to happen, what with Brown beating pre-season favorite Harvard early in the season and Yale and Columbia showing signs of resurgence. Penn’s 35-28 win over an improved Dartmouth in a back-and-forth overtime game on October 2 drove home the point that nothing will come easily for the Quakers this season. The four touchdowns were the most scored against Penn by an Ivy team since November 1, 2008, when Brown scored 34 points.
Though the Quakers played FCS No. 1-ranked Villanova to a draw for most of a 22-10 loss on September 25—Penn was driving for a go-ahead score late in the game when the Wildcats ran back an interception for a touchdown—Dartmouth exposed a potential weakness in the Quakers’ defensive secondary with several long pass plays and two touchdown passes to receivers who towered over senior Bradford Blackmon and junior Matt Hamscher (both converted running backs) in the end zone. The Big Green also demonstrated little reluctance to take gambles.
“I told the kids that when you’re the champ, this is how teams are going to play: They’ll go for it on fourth down, they’ll try fake field goals. So you have to be prepared for it,” Bagnoli said.
While a stout defense has masked occasional offensive inconsistencies for the Quakers in recent years, it may be the offense that leaves the bigger imprint in 2010. A solid, experienced offensive line forms the core of a unit that has rolled up yardage at an impressive clip with a dizzying array of players sharing turns in the spotlight. Got running backs? Try this one on: on a team that features 2008 leading rusher Michael DiMaggio (a senior) and 2009 leading rusher Lyle Marsh (a sophomore), it was sophomores Brandon Colavita and Jeff Jack who were 1-2 in rushing so far in 2010.
The quarterback position follows much the same script, and offers a glimpse into Bagnoli’s ability to adjust with the times. Once upon a time, the Quakers sought the classic, drop-back passer (Gavin Hoffman W’01, Mike Mitchell W’03, Robert Irvin C’09) who could deliver the ball to talented wideouts (Rob Milanese W’02, Dan Castles W’07) and run when necessary. Gradually, Bagnoli shifted to the Noah’s Ark approach, bringing in quarterbacks in twos (or more) so he could mix and match, sometimes from series to series, and alternate pure passers with guys who could drive defenses batty with their feet (Bryan Walker W’08, senior Keiffer Garton). Now, he looks for the quarterback who combines both, and he appears to be succeeding at that, too.
“We kind of switched our philosophy to trying to get a guy who can continue a play with his feet,” he said. “Historically we might not have always done that; we put much more of a premium on the arm. But lately, given all the gun-run offenses that people have, all the blitzes you’re seeing nowadays and everything a quarterback has to encounter, we put much more of a premium on the kid being somewhat mobile and having the ability to not only throw but run the ball.”
Sophomore Billy Ragone personifies the new model, and against Dartmouth he scrambled for two touchdowns and threw for another. The oft-injured Garton returned to action against Bucknell and led a scoring drive in limited duty. Florida State freshman transfer Ryan Becker, possibly the best pure passer of the group, coolly led a touchdown drive against Dartmouth and demonstrated quick feet in avoiding the pass rush.
“I just feel like we’re really good,” Heller, the senior linebacker, said. “The offense looks as good as it ever has. I would say we’re just as confident in the defense now as we were at the same time last year. But we’re going to get everyone’s best shot, and we’ve got to be prepared. It’s going to be a dog fight every week.”
Dave Porter C’82 writes for the Associated Press.