By David Porter
Three seasons have come and gone since Penn last claimed the Ivy League football title, and there is the inescapable feeling that nothing short of a return to the top this fall will help erase the memories of a 2006 season that went from strange to bizarre to downright perplexing.
Five losses by a total of 15 points—including an NCAA-record three consecutive overtime games, all losses—left a bitter taste that head coach Al Bagnoli was sure to exploit as a teaching aid to remind his players of the game’s capricious nature.
“You learn as much from your losses as you do from your wins, and I think the kids really have an idea now of how little margin of error there is in today’s Ivy League, and how [a] few plays can make the difference in a game,” Bagnoli said. “You’re never really quite sure when those plays are going to surface; they could come early in the game. But unless you’re much more talented than your opponent, it’s ultimately going to come down to three or four plays you make or don’t make that dictate whether you win or lose.”
Those plays not made in 2006 chiefly revolved around the Quakers’ kicking game, and Penn’s travails in that area slowly washed away a promising start to the season that included four wins in five games. They also overshadowed some inspired performances: senior Joe Sandberg’s 1,042 yards rushing; the development of sophomore Robert Irvin into a poised and confident starting quarterback; late-game rallies against Princeton and Cornell that in other seasons might have culminated in victories.
With Derek Zoch’s struggles forcing Bagnoli to use wide receiver Braden Lepisto, then a junior, and Peter Stine W’07 at kicker last season, Bagnoli planned to open up the competition for 2007 to all comers even though Zoch returns for his senior season.
“It’s a long shot for him,” Bagnoli said matter-of-factly. “We’ve talked about it. Obviously if any of the younger kids that [try out] have solid camp, they’re going to be the ones we go with.”
On paper, Penn appears stocked with talent at the so-called skill positions and at other key spots as well. The Quakers were picked second in the preseason media poll behind Yale, and it’s not difficult to see why: they return their top two quarterbacks (Irvin, back for his junior year, and senior Bryan Walker), their leading rusher and scorer (Sandberg) plus their leading receiver (Lepisto), tackler (linebacker Joe Anastasio, a senior), interceptor (junior Tyson Maugle), punt returner (senior Greg Ambrogi) and kick returner (sophomore Chris Wynn). Then there is senior defensive lineman Naheem Harris, like Anastasio and Sandberg a first-team All-Ivy pick last season.
Both Sandberg and Irvin put up impressive numbers last season. Sandberg, who is in his fifth year after sitting out the 2004 season when he transferred to Rutgers, became only the eighth player in school history to rush for more than 1,000 yards in a season. In his first season, Irvin threw for 2,128 yards, the sixth-best single-season performance in school history.
They should benefit from the presence of first-year offensive coordinator Bill Schmitz, who brings more than a quarter century of experience as an assistant coach at Vanderbilt, Rice, Alabama-Birmingham, and in the World Football League.
“We have enough in place and enough of a foundation to give us a chance to be a pretty good football team,” Bagnoli said. “We have kids at all different levels, plus enough back in the offensive line and most of our secondary back. But obviously we have to get some answers in the field goal and extra-point area.”
Painful though it may be to revisit, the 2006 season—in which four losses turned on botched attempts—may have provided the most pointed example in Penn’s long football history of the importance of a reliable kicking game.
Perhaps it was just the Quakers’ turn to get knocked down a few pegs. If so, they can take heart in the fact that there is ample precedent for them to dust themselves off and regain their former stature: the last time there was a three-year Ivy title drought under Bagnoli followed the 1994 team led by Mark DeRosa W’97 and Terrance Stokes C’95. Four years later, Jim Finn W’99 and Matt Rader W’98 led the Quakers back to the top and ushered in a string of four championships in six years.
Red and Blue followers can also rest assured that entering his 16th season at Penn—and 26th as a head coach—Bagnoli is well past the midpoint of his career but has not lost his zeal for his job.
“I feel good,” he said. “I still like being around our kids, I still get excited about coming to work. As long as that happens, I can hang around for a couple more years. But when it’s time, I’ll know. I won’t be like Joe Paterno at 80 years old, with people trying to drag me out of here.”
David Porter C’82 writes for the Associated Press.