Penn facing a different Columbia with familiar coach

Harvard Columbia College Football
Coach Al Bagnoli’s Columbia team is 4-0 for the first time since 1996.

It’s not really about Al Bagnoli hosting Penn on Saturday afternoon at Wien Stadium. It’s the Quakers playing a Columbia team that’s 4-0 for the first time since 1996. Still, many folks will naturally get caught up in the former Penn coach trying to get the Lions their first win in this matchup in 21 years. Just because.

“I understand the narrative,” Bagnoli readily conceded. “I certainly don’t blame people for asking the question. It’s very unique. I used to work there. But as I get distanced by time it’s less and less a story.

“Hopefully now it turns into we’re trying to build something to equal some of the successes that Penn has had …
“The only thing you can ask, with so much of the season left to go, is to be playing meaningful games at this time of year. You still have to win those meaningful games, but at least you’re part of the storyline. We’ve earned the opportunity. That’s all it gives you is an opportunity. It doesn’t guarantee you anything. But it’s nice to have that, as opposed to coming in 1-3 and being an afterthought.”

Penn, which has won a share of the Ivy League title the last two years for Bagnoli’s handpicked successor, longtime assistant Ray Priore, has lost two straight. Two weeks ago, they dropped their Ivy opener at home to Dartmouth, 16-13, on a last-play touchdown. In 2015, they lost their league opener at Franklin Field to Dartmouth by 21 points before sweeping their last six. That streak started with a 42-7 victory at Columbia.

Nobody has won a piece of the Ivy title with two losses since 1982. The only other time it happened was 1963.
“We’ve been here,” said Priore, who remains Bagnoli’s neighbor in South Jersey. “But there is a whole different sense of urgency. We practice with it. We all share in that. I know our kids are extremely focused. … It’s far beyond Coach and myself. He’s got his kids playing with confidence.

“In our league, we can’t go to the (FCS) playoffs. So the league is our playoff.”

Sure, it’s way early. Yet the standings look like the preseason media poll has been flipped upside down. Dartmouth — which went 6-1 two years ago and 1-6 last season – is 2-0. Its wins were by a combined four points. Last week, the Big Green came from 21 point to beat visiting Yale on a touchdown with 34 seconds left. Columbia (1-0) is the only other remaining unbeaten. On Sept. 30, the Lions beat defending co-champ Princeton by four on a 63-yard TD pass with a little over a minute to go.

Dartmouth was picked to finish fifth, Columbia seventh.

Harvard, which tied for first in the voting with Princeton, lost to Cornell for the first time in 11 years. Cornell was picked last.

Doesn’t matter anymore.

“We’re still not out of the woods, by any stretch,” Bagnoli stressed. “For any team to be 4-0, you need some things to go right for you. We’re no different. But there’s a different expectation from when I got here. The kids are excited about trying to do something. That’s been a little contagious. We’re still dealing with so many variables that it’s hard to predict what’s going to happen. We did go in thinking we were considerably better than last year.”

The Lions have already won one more than they did in 2016. When Bagnoli arrived, they were in the midst of what became a 24-game losing streak. Which was still 20 fewer than the one the program put together back in the late 1980s.

Since Ivy play began in 1956, the Lions have had seven seasons of .500 or better. And four winning records in the Ivies. Only one of them has happened since 1971. Their lone title came in 1961.

“I don’t want to know all that information,” Bagnoli joked. “The numbers are somewhat terrifying, to be honest with you. It’s taken three years to get to the point where we’re finally playing games that have some significance. But that’s all it means. I’ve had to talk to the kids about how to handle success. They’ve had a lot of practice handling failure. After this, we have Dartmouth, Yale, and Harvard. We’ll have our hands full. That’s the reality.”

The Quakers haven’t threepeated since they got five straight rings in the mid-1980s. They’ve won 32 of the last 35 meetings.

The last three haven’t been close. But this one has a much different feel to it, for all the obvious reasons.

“In this league, every game has a significant impact on your future,” said senior defensive end Louis Vecchio, an all-Ivy player. “In the past, this one was just as important, since any loss can take you out of the running. We still have a chance. We have a blueprint of how to do it. And we know that we can. But we can’t look at it as a six-game thing. We’re not naive. But we have to worry about today first. Win that and then take care of tomorrow.

“We know the type of football we can play. And have to play. I don’t know if there’s more pressure now. There’s a lot at stake for both teams. We expect that it’s going to be a great game. I did my summer intership in New York. A lot of people were talking about how this is the game they look forward to.”

This time even more so than most years. Who figured?