This is how fragile sports can be: Penn, the two-time defending Ivy League champion, has dropped its first two league games.
Three weeks ago at home against Dartmouth, the Quakers lost on a 1-yard touchdown run on the final snap. Saturday at Columbia, they lost to the Lions for the first time since 1996, in overtime, on a 24-yard pass on third-and-9.
Dartmouth and Columbia (both 5-0, 2-0) are the only teams that remain unbeaten in the league. They were picked to finish fifth and seventh, respectively, in the media preseason poll.
Two weeks ago Dartmouth beat Yale at home by 1 on a TD with 34 seconds to go after trailing by 21 midway through the second quarter. It was the largest comeback in program history. And on Sept. 30 Columbia beat Princeton, which shared the title in 2016 with Penn, on a 61-yard pass with just over a minute left.
“If you look at it, the kids are sitting there saying we’re this close,” said coach Ray Priore. “But at the end of the day we didn’t finish. We failed to execute. So it’s as much on us as anything else. Our kids realize that. It’s frustrating.”
Nobody has ended up in first place with two losses since 1982. The only other time it happened was 1963. So that’s what Penn (2-3, 0-2), which has lost three straight since scoring 65 at Lehigh, is up against.
Columbia is at Dartmouth this week. The Lions have to play Yale (4-1, 1-1) and Harvard (3-2, 1-1) too. Dartmouth, which has also won by one in OT and by three, has to play Harvard and Princeton (4-1, 1-1). It won’t matter in West Philly if the Quakers can’t win out. They have to play Princeton and Harvard as well.
Penn hasn’t three-peated since taking five in a row in the mid-1980s. Priore is trying to become the second Ivy coach, and first in 4 1/2 decades, to earn a ring in each of his first three seasons.
And then there’s this: “They have pride,” Priore emphasized.
Especially the seniors, who went 2-8 in 2014. That was the last time the Quakers played a game that wasn’t for anything except pride.
“This is different,” acknowledged defensive lineman Tayler Hendrickson, one of those fourth-year guys. “The younger kids don’t really know what this feels like. We could easily be 2-0. But we’re not. So we have to deal with that. The season can still go in our favor. But it’s up to us. …
“It’s a five-game season. We can make it worth remembering. The last two years have been fun as hell. We can’t look back. That won’t do us any good. If we’re still thinking how we could have beaten Columbia it’ll just get in our way. We can’t lose any more games. In our league every game is like a rivalry game. You want to beat those guys.
“We’ve been down before. The past few years, we’ve won every close game we’ve been in. It seems like our luck’s swinging back the other way. It’s been kind of odd. But you have to take it on the chin and keep moving forward. We don’t want to let the whole season go in the wrong direction. We have too much talent to let that happen.”
Penn won at Yale last October, 42-7. The Bulldogs haven’t won here since 2007 (in triple OT). That was the only time they’ve won here since 1990.
“It’s funny, but last week was easily our best week of practice all season,” Hendrickson said. “Now it’s a weird feeling going to practice after dropping three in a row. We’ve always been able to rally. With the leadership we’ve got, everything’s possible. The football hasn’t bounced our way.”
The schedule says the Quakers have half a season left. The seniors have that much to go in their careers. They’re the ones who helped take this program from 4-6 and 2-8 to back-to-back. So we’ll see.
“It’s a great challenge for our kids,” Priore said. “We have great kids. They’re smart kids. Everyone’s got to look in the mirror and say what can we do better. They’re resilient. It’s more of a mental thing. You go back to what got you there. They’ve accomplished a lot. They have five swings left. They’re going to work really hard. We have to take the pulse of everything and everybody.
“But we’re not even going to worry about all that other [outside] stuff.”
They can only hope that in another few weeks they’ll have a reason to scoreboard-watch.