Living on a Prayer

Both teams enter this weekend a game back in the league standings

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Sophomore Liam O’Hagan will face Penn for the first time as the starting quarterback for the Crimson—though unlike in years past, he will not be playing to win the title, but only to keep hopes alive in the Ivy chase.

Maybe it’s because they meet so late in the year. Maybe it’s a result of their shared dominance in the Ivy League. For whatever reason, the fact remains—the Penn-Harvard rivalry game has determined the Ivy champion for the last five years.

This year, it’s different.

In an ironic twist of fate, both the Crimson (5-3, 3-2 Ivy) and the Quakers (5-3, 3-2 Ivy) are all but assuredly on the outside looking in for the 2005 league championship.

With first-place Brown on the fast-track to the championship—they play the dregs of the Ivy League in Dartmouth and Columbia in their final two games—something novel is about to occur in the Ivies. For the first time in six years, it looks like neither Harvard nor Penn will be hoisting a championship trophy at the end of the season.

But for these teams, Saturday’s game still holds special meaning. It will be a grudge match between the past two Ivy champs, and, in a lot of ways, the game is a chance to redeem the winner’s disappointing season.

“I think our approach to this game is similar to last year’s game,” junior tailback Clifton Dawson said. “We’re taking this game as our championship.”

It would break tradition for either team to think otherwise. In 2003 and 2004, the Quakers faced Harvard with both teams holding undefeated Ivy League records. Two years ago, Penn came to Harvard Stadium and won on its way to an undefeated championship season. Last year, Harvard returned the favor, beating the Quakers 31-10 at Penn for the first time in 11 years to secure its own perfect season.

This season is different.

Penn went through the first six games of its schedule 5-1, undefeated in the Ivies. Its smallest margin of victory was 17 points, and many believed it would run through the Ivies yet again.

Two weeks ago, everything changed. Penn experienced its second defeat in its past 27 Ivy League games, losing 34-20 against Brown. Things just got worst for the Quakers last weekend, as Penn suffered its second loss in as many weeks to Princeton, giving up five turnovers in a 31-10 collapse to the Tigers. It was the first time Penn had lost back-to-back games in almost a decade.

“We’ve been erratic in all three phases of the game,” Quakers’ coach Al Bagnoli said. “When you play good teams, you have such a small margin for error.”

Last week exemplified Penn’s recent struggles across the board. On special teams, Princeton blocked an extra point that would have brought the Quakers to within a touchdown, then ran it back for a two-point conversion of their own. The defense gave up big touchdown plays, and while playing injured, senior quarterback Pat McDermott threw four interceptions to cripple Penn’s offense.

And in a league of such parity, with five teams still technically eligible for the Ivy championship, this inconsistency has spelled disaster for the Quakers.

“[Our struggles] have not been a result of a lack of effort on our team,” Bagnoli said, who will be looking for his 100th collegiate victory on Saturday. “We just need to find the cause of the inconsistency.”

Quarterback play may be the place to start. McDermott has been injured much of this season, and he missed Penn’s loss at Brown. He returned last week rusty, and it showed in his four-interception performance.

“Pat McDermott has been a little banged up from time to time,” Crimson coach Tim Murphy said. “All I know is that when he’s in there, they’re a much better team than when he’s not in there.”

Whether this holds true on Saturday is still up in the air, but Murphy exemplified a residual respect Harvard has for its preeminent Ivy rival of the last decade.

“In terms of tradition, it’s not the same as Yale,” Harvard senior offensive lineman Brian Lapham said. “But they’re such a good team year-in, year-out, that it still means a lot.”

This game will have added importance for seniors like Lapham, who will play their final game in Harvard Stadium this Saturday.

Although the game is not deciding the Ivy championship and is positioned before fan-favorite “The Game,” for the team and especially its seniors, it’s a matter of respect.

“I think this is a pride game,” Murphy said. “You’re looking at two programs that have immense pride in their football programs and they’ve obviously had a great deal of success.”

Only this year, it’s a little different.

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