Snubbed by the polls, Penn still has something to prove

Coach Ray Priore and the Penn Quakers have won a share of the last two Ivy League championships.

Penn is the two-time defending Ivy League champion. Two years ago, the Quakers shared the title with Harvard and Dartmouth. Last season, they tied with Princeton.

Almost the whole team is back, headlined by preseason all-American wide receiver Justin Watson. What they don’t have is a returning starting quarterback. And maybe that’s the reason why they were picked to finish third in the preseason poll, behind Harvard and Princeton, which both ended up with 10 more points. The Quakers did receive as many first-place votes as Harvard (five, one fewer than Princeton).

So what does any of that really mean? Two years ago Penn – coming off a 2-8 season — was picked sixth. Last year, the Quakers were second, despite getting two more first-place nods than Harvard. Princeton, by the way, was fifth. But in this century, going with Penn or Harvard has usually turned out to be a reasonable enough projection.

Still, the Quakers feel like they’ve been, well, disrespected. Right or wrong, it’s hard to fault them.

“I think our kids weren’t happy about that, but they took it right in stride,” said third-year coach Ray Priore, who was Al Bagnoli’s longtime assistant. “The only part that really matters is where you’re at the end of the season. So it’s OK. I’d rather be in this position and put the pressure on other people. Kids come to Penn knowing it’s going to be big. Trying to capture another championship is always on the agenda.”

Priore is trying to become the second man in Ivy history to win the title in each of his first three seasons. Jake Crouthamel did it at Dartmouth from 1971 to 1973. But he took over a program that had also won it in 1969 and ’70 for Bob Blackman. Priore inherited a team that had lost 12 of its previous 14 games.

He has a new, untested quarterback in former backup Will Fischer-Colbrie, who finally gets his shot after beating out freshman Ryan Glover and community-college transfer Nick Robinson, who originally went to Georgia. Fischer-Colbrie originally went to Colorado.

The Quakers open Saturday afternoon against Division II Ohio Dominican (0-2) at Franklin Field.

They’ll host Princeton on Nov. 4 and go to Harvard the following week. Barring something unforeseen, their season will come down to those back-to-back assignments.

And by that point, whoever picked which team to finish where remain the primary motivation.

“We have expectations,” said senior defensive end Louis Vecchio, a first-team all-Ivy selection. “We hold ourselves to a high standard. We want to show the league what we can do.”

Once more. They haven’t three-peated since winning five in a row from 1982-86.

“I mean, we’ve been projected lower in the past,” he went on. “I don’t think that affects us at all. It’s up to us to do what it takes to achieve our goals. So we’re not worried about what anyone else might think of us or our chances.

“We’ve been there. So it’s not surprising. They can view us any way they want. That’s totally fine. We know where we want to be. That’s all that matters.”

It figures to be different not having Alek Torgersen running the offense. But that’s what the elite programs do. You incorportate the next guys into the equation. And in the best-case scenarios, you don’t lose much in the transition.

“We’re hungry,” said Watson. “To be picked third after winning back-to-back, I love that. I love being the underdog. Nothing’s changed. We want an outright 10-0 championship.

“You have to shift everything to your advantage. Faith is believing without seeing. And that’s what preseason polls are. We’ve proven it on the field two years in a row. So that’s definitely a slap. But the only thing we can do is prove it again.”

It won’t be easy. It rarely is. Two years ago they lost their Ivy opener by 21 points. At home. They beat Princeton by three in West Philly in overtime, after coming back from a 10-point halftime deficit and blocking a field goal on the final play of regulation. Then they beat a Harvard team that had won 22 straight, up there, by winning the second half 14-zip.

Last season, they beat Brown by seven, but needed a late end-zone interception. After losing by 28-0 at Princeton, they scored scored twice in the last 15 seconds to get past Harvard.

Every journey is different. But they can all get to the same destination.

This stuff goes both ways. In 2013, Penn was picked to repeat. Instead, the Quakers finished fourth. In fact, only one Ivy favorite has managed to win since 2008. That was Harvard, two years ago. For whatever that’s worth.

Penn looks like it has every chance. Maybe that’s all you can ever really ask for.

“The lessons are you don’t take anything for granted,” Priore said. “You’re always going back to what got you there. Taking care of the little things. The names and faces are going to change.”

And hope that through it all, the bottom line doesn’t.

Penn Game by Game

Saturday – vs. Ohio Dominican: The Quakers were supposed to start with Jacksonville, which beat them in the 2014 opener 34-31 in Florida. When the Dolphins pulled out late, this was what was left. The Panthers lost their opener at California (Pa.), the No. 8 team in Division II, on a late field goal.

Sept. 23 – at Lehigh: The Mountain Hawks, who are in the FCS Top 25, won at Franklin Field last year by 21. And in 2015 in Bethlehem by the same margin.

Sept. 29 – vs. Dartmouth: Friday night in West Philly. Quakers were 3-0 on Fridays last season, which included a 37-24 win at Dartmouth.

Oct. 7 – at Central Connecticut State: Quakers won at home last year in first meeting, 28-16.

Oct. 14 – at Columbia: They haven’t lost to Lions since 1996. The last two years it was 42-7 and 35-10. Al Bagnoli’s team was picked to finish seventh in Ivies in his third season with program.

Oct. 21 – vs. Yale: Bulldogs were picked to finish fourth. They did beat Harvard in last year’s finale for first time since 2006 and second time since 2000. Penn has won three of last four meetings. Last year it was 42-7.

Oct. 28 – at Brown: Quakers have lost four of last six trips to Providence. They won the last one, in 2015, 48-28. Last year here they won 21-14.

Nov. 4 – vs. Princeton: Tigers shared the title a year ago with Penn. But they beat the Quakers at home, 28-0. And they’ve taken three of the last four. Penn won in West Philly two years ago in overtime.

Nov. 11 – at Harvard: This game almost always means something in this race, and this year figures to be no different. Quakers have won last two years. But they have dropped four of their last six in Boston. Then again, who hasn’t?

Nov. 18 – vs. Cornell: Quakers have won three straight, and four of five. The Big Red won here in both 2011 and 2013, scoring over 40 each time.