Penn finally defeats Villanova

Penn's Justin Watson gets his face mask pulled by Villanova's Malik Reaves during the first-quarter at Villanova on Thursday, Sept. 24, 2015.

PENN AND Villanova have played every year except one since 2002. The Wildcats had won all of them, although four were decided on the final possession. But the last three had been by a combined 100-21.

Last night on the Main Line they met again, albeit two days early thanks to Pope Francis' visit. The Wildcats came in ranked fifth in FCS. But they were without four-year starting quarterback John Robertson, the 2014 Walter Payton Award winner. He is out indefinitely after tearing the posterior cruciate ligament in his right knee late in Saturday's come-from-behind win over visiting Delaware in their Colonial Athletic Association opener. They were also down three starting offensive linemen (two injuries, one death in the family).

The Quakers, under new coach Ray Priore, their longtime defensive coordinator, had lost 13 of their previous 15, including an opening 21-pointer at Lehigh, which had already played twice.

So what happened? Well, the Quakers got their first road win over a Top 5 team ever, 24-13. It's one Priore figures to remember a long time.

"After last week, we talked about belief and trust," he said. "Obviously the response was unbelievable. It's tough to comprehend right now. It's really special. It's been a long time."

Villanova had won 14 straight in the series, with Penn's last win in 1911. That's three decades longer than it took Temple to get Penn State.

"You never know when the first one is going to come," Priore went on. "It's going to happen at some point in time. (But) I didn't imagine (this)."

Maybe Penn was merely overdue.

Maybe Villanova (2-2) just had a letdown in the wake of Robinson's absence.

Maybe the Wildcats couldn't overcome those many voids along their offensive front.

Or perhaps it was some combo of all of the above.

Whatever, we should have figured something might be up when the Quakers (1-1) got the ball first and went 75 yards in nine plays to get a touchdown against a defense that supposedly is Villanova's strength.

Then they recovered a muffed kickoff at the Villanova 25, even though that possession would result in nothing when they couldn't convert a fourth-and-4.

And so it would go, as Villanova's playoff hopes took a serious hit.

It was 14-0 at the half, on two touchdown passes from Alek Torgersen to Justin Watson. It was 30 minutes in which the visitors dominated. And it should have been worse. Penn missed a 34-yard field goal, and was intercepted in the end zone (tremendous effort by cornerback Malik Reaves to wrestle the ball away from Watson) on a play that started at the 7 with 17 seconds left in the second quarter. Reaves ran it back to the Penn 34, the first time Villanova made it into Quaker territory.

At that point, Penn had 180 more yards, 20 more minutes in time of possession, 14 more first downs and ran 34 more plays. Hard to compute.

"We had to minimize their possessions," Priore said. "The game's all about the ball. We wanted to control it early and see what happens."

This one got to 17-0 with 4:14 to go in the third on a 40-yard FG by Jimmy Gammill, which got Penn to 3-for-6 in the red zone.

In 2005, the Wildcats had trailed, 24-7, in the third at Franklin Field before scoring the last 21.

Not this time. But the Wildcats did draw within 10 late in the third on Gary Underwood's 1-yard run, a 74-yard, eight-play drive. When they got the ball back, they moved from their 8 to the Penn 8. But Javon White fumbled, and linebacker Donald Panciello ran it back 90 yards in front of the Villanova sideline with 6:51 showing. Which meant that redshirt freshman QB Zach Bednarczyk - who'd come in cold to rally the Wildcats from a late seven-point hole last week - wasn't going to be able to make his first start since leading DePaul Catholic to a New Jersey state championship two years ago a memorable one. He finished 17-for-30 for 185 yards, with a TD and a pick. But this one wasn't only on him. For the second straight week, the Wildcats were held to just under 100 yards rushing.

They did score with 1:26 remaining (but missed the PAT on a bad snap). By then it didn't matter. The final stats were terribly misrepresentative.

Penn won despite the fact that Watson didn't play in the second half because of a shoulder injury on Reaves' return. And fellow sophomore Tre Solomon, who's probably their best running back, left early in the third after getting hurt.

Torgersen threw for 171 yards and two scores. Brian Schoenauer rushed for 61 yards on 16 carries, most of it after Solomon went out. Watson had five catches for 87 yards and the two scores. On the second, which put Penn up 14, he broke a tackle to turn a short curl into a 33-yard highlight.

"Obviously, (Watson and Solomon) are a big part of the offense," Torgersen said. "Without them, we had some guys step up. The mindset coming in was grind it out, just do our best. We did a pretty good job.

"It's crazy, for us to break the streak. It's kind of just setting in that we did this."

Penn gets Dartmouth next Saturday in its home and Ivy League opener.

Villanova is off next week, its only bye, before hosting William & Mary on Oct. 10.

"I'm (still) very positive,'' Villanova coach Andy Talley said. "Everything is fixable. We need to get some people back. What we can't fix is a tight end having to play tackle, a guard having to play center. Unfortunately, we just got hit with enough injuries to disturb the offensive cohesion.

"If I'm saying the same thing in 16 days, after we play a good William & Mary team, then we have problems. We had three very difficult games, and a short week. We have a young quarterback that's going to grow with us. We just can't put (so much) strain on our defense. So many guys went though practice gingerly this week. And we played like we prepared.''

On Twitter: @mikekerndn

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