By Craig Haley, FCS Executive Director
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - The 37-25 Ivy League win that Penn's brush stroked on Saturday was "not a Picasso by any stretch," Quakers head coach Al Bagnoli shrugged about afterward.
Ah, but was ol' Pablo ever forced to improvise against an angry 4-3?
The beauty of Penn's week-by-week escapes in the Ivy League this season just might become the Quakers' ultimate masterpiece.
Many thought this was supposed to be the year in which Penn's league supremacy would get tossed for a sack. But the closer the Quakers get to a third straight championship, as well as surpassing their program's record for consecutive league wins, it's how they are reacting in tight spots that critics might only rave about in four weeks.
Penn (4-2, 3-0) needed four fourth-quarter touchdowns to silence Yale's upset bid at Franklin Field and hold serve at the top of the league standings with Harvard (5-1, 3-0). If the Quakers win at Brown next Saturday, then they seemingly will be playing for another championship at Harvard on Nov. 12.
Winning at Brown won't be easy. Then again, nothing is this season with the Quakers, who have trailed in the fourth quarter of all three league wins.
"I think it speaks a lot about our team," said junior quarterback Billy Ragone, whose fourth-quarter play was a stroke of brilliance. "We're never going to give up on a game."
In dropping Yale (3-3, 2-1) out of a share for first place, Penn earned its 18th straight Ivy League win, which is two shy of the Quakers' 20-game record run from 2001-04. Al Bagnoli, the winningest active FCS coach who has guided eight Ivy champions, collected his 100th league win to move into a tie with Dartmouth's Bob Blackman for the second-most Ivy wins behind Carmen Cozza (135), who was at Saturday's game working the Yale radio broadcast.
"This is a completely different team, the team last year and the team two years ago," All-Ivy linebacker Erik Rask said. "You know it's been awesome being a part of all that, but we want to forge our own history this year with this team."
This year's work-in-progress, as Bagnoli calls the budding Picassonites, has learned to thrive from a sense of urgency.
On playgrounds across America, kids are trying to emulate Michael Vick's whirling dervish style. But the junior version is right within the City of Brotherly Love - a true junior in the left-handed, evasive Ragone.
Penn's Ivy winning streak was in serious jeopardy when it trailed 20-10 early in the fourth quarter. The pressing need to open up the offense allowed Ragone to dial up his scrambling and big-play talents to turn the game around.
He led the Quakers to touchdowns on their first four possessions of the quarter, a 7-minute, 47-second blitzkrieg that put the Bulldogs behind 37-23 by the time their heads stopped spinning. If they stopped spinning.
Ragone rushed for 53 yards and a touchdown on three carries and completed 5- of-6 passes for 86 yards and two touchdowns in the fourth quarter. Overall, he was 17 of 24 for 236 yards and three touchdowns with 94 rushing yards and the one touchdown on nine carries - reviewing the performance as his "best individual game."
"Recently we've been in some games where we've had to open it up and I think we've gotten more comfortable with opening it up," said Ragone, a runner-up for Ivy player of the year as a sophomore. "Our receivers are great receivers. They're going to go and catch the ball and make some plays. It's just on me to get everyone going, get everyone focused in the huddle and just getting them believing that we can do it. I think everyone has the same attitude, where we're going to fight until the clock hits zero."
Penn cut its deficit to 20-16 after Ragone darted for a 40-yard run to set up tight end Luke Nawrocki on a 16-yard touchdown pass with 13 minutes left. Connor Loftus was wide left on the extra point, which kept the Quakers more than a field goal behind.
On the ensuing kickoff, though, Loftus gained some redemption by chipping the ball over the first line of Yale coverage, where Penn freshman Kyle Wilcox recovered the ball at the Bulldogs' 39. It was the key play of the game, according to Yale coach Tom Williams, who watched the Quakers go ahead three plays later when Ragone scrambled left, right and away from three defenders for an 11-yard touchdown and a 23-20 lead with 11:42 left.
Yale tied the game at 23 on Philippe Panico's 35-yard field goal with 8:31 remaining. But less than 2 1/2 minutes later, Ragone hit wide receiver Ryan Calvert streaking into the left corner of the end zone for a 20-yard touchdown pass and a 30-23 Quakers' lead with 6:12 left.
Yale's Deon Randall fumbled away the ensuing kickoff to Penn's Joey Grosso at the Bulldogs' 34. Three play later, Brandon Colavita rumbled around left end for a 25-yard touchdown to make it 37-23.
Ragone won the battle of elite Ivy quarterbacks. Patrick Witt, who has been endorsed by Yale as a 2011 Rhodes Scholar candidate, had been outstanding this season, but would have been average on Saturday if it wasn't for standout wide receiver Chris Smith's 148-yard game.
It was Smith's fourth 100-yard game of the season, but an injury knocked him from the game shortly after scoring his second touchdown - a superb over-the- shoulder 60-yard catch-and-run which gave the Bulldogs their 20-10 third- quarter lead.
Bagnoli said the offenses were mirror-images for much of the game, with Yale's Alex Thomas rushing for a career-high 204 rushing yards and a touchdown on 30 carries, basically offset by Colavita going for 156 yards and the TD on 18 carries.
The difference was Lil' Mike Vick.
"We've got to keep building off this," Ragone said. "We have some more tough games coming up and we just have to stay focused and keep practicing hard and we'll be fine."
"We're a different team this year than we were last year," Bagnoli said. "I think people forget we graduated 33 seniors, so obviously there's a lot of new faces, a lot of moving parts that are kind of having for the first time an integral role in how we're doing (it). From that perspective, you just have to keep getting those guys better, better, make sure they stay focused for the entire game and just make sure they understand how hard you've got to work during the week, how hard you've got to work on Saturday, and how much time and effort it takes to win games in this league.
"It's not a Picasso by any stretch."
Well, maybe ...