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OUT OF LEFT FELD: Quakers Continue Improbable Run

When Penn senior quarterback Billy Ragone imagined regaining the Ivy League crown, he couldn’t have foreseen it looking like this. But, puffing a victory cigar on his makeshift throne of a Kobata 4x4 injury cart, he looked plenty satisfied.

Late in the third quarter, Ragone was leading his Quakers on yet another long drive, moving the ball from the Penn 13 to inside Harvard’s 30 on just seven plays. On the eighth, he escaped the pocket again, knifing his way through the Crimson defense before being tackled by senior Nnamdi Obukwelu. But when Obukwelu got up, Ragone stayed down.

It soon became clear that Penn’s quarterback would not be coming back into the game Saturday. But the Quakers were prepared. They had dealt with adversity before.

Just three short weeks ago, the team was 2-4 coming off a two-touchdown loss to Yale—the Bulldogs’ only Ivy win thus far. That week, the squad’s seniors, who already had two Ivy rings, had a meeting and set their minds to turning their final season around.

“It seemed like all hope was lost for our team,” Penn senior Brandon Copeland said. “[Senior Jeff Jack] said we had won championships and we had been undefeated in the league…but it would be that much sweeter to be the senior class of the team that turned it around midseason and sit here today, happy.”

Since that meeting, Penn has run off three straight wins against the teams currently ranked second, third, and fourth in the league standings. In all three games, the Quakers broke second-half ties and held onto a lead.

They did it even without Ragone on Saturday, scoring three plays after the QB went out to open up a 28-14 lead. Harvard responded with a touchdown of its own on the next drive but got no closer than that.

Ragone re-emerged on the sideline with just over four minutes left in the game—perched on the same buggy that had carted him off, but this time with a large cast encasing his left ankle—to watch Penn close the deal with a late safety and three kneel-downs.

After that final play, the team busted out cigars to celebrate at least a share of its third championship in four years. The sight of the immobile quarterback reclining on the sports utility vehicle, smoke rising from his mouth as he shook hands with teammates, coaches, opponents, and even a few fans who had stormed the field and did a television interview from the comfort of the bed was a perfect image to sum up the oddity of this Ivy season.

Four weeks ago, Harvard sat atop the Ancient Eight having beaten Brown and Cornell by an average score of 45-22. What happened at Princeton in the Crimson’s next league matchup remains a mystery, but regardless of whether Harvard took its foot off the gas or the Tigers just mustered an historic comeback, Princeton came out of that week controlling its destiny after a 39-34 upset. But that didn’t last long.

Two consecutive Tigers losses over the next two weeks sent the reigns of Ivy power back to Cambridge. After a 69-0 drubbing of Columbia, it seemed that Harvard was going to take advantage of the do-over Princeton had given the team. But in the de facto Ivy League championship game that the Crimson’s annual matchup with Penn has seemingly become, the reigning champ didn’t seem to bring its A-game.

On the Quaker’s penultimate possession, Harvard was given one last chance to regain control when backup quarterback Andrew Holland fumbled in Crimson territory. But no Harvard players bounced on the ball, and Penn eventually recovered.

That has been the story of this season. A dominant Crimson squad was given a few chances to right its season down the stretch, but it didn’t capitalize on enough of them. On the other hand, the Quakers took advantage of every opportunity they had, winning every close Ivy game they played in.

In doing so, Penn, a familiar face at the top of the Ancient Eight, has emerged from an abnormal season. But all of this comes with a grain of salt: Harvard may get one final chance.

By knocking Ragone out for the season, the Crimson dealt a major blow to the Quakers’ chances of winning the league outright by beating Cornell next week in Ithaca, N.Y. Though the Big Red is only 2-4 in Ivy competition, it has already upset Princeton and will looking to spoil Penn’s coronation on Senior Day.

Cornell will have the advantage if it can turn the game into a shootout—the Big Red averages the most passing yards per game in the Ivy League by nearly 100 yards per contest while the Quakers will have to rely on Holland.

If Cornell can pull of the upset and Harvard can handle Yale at home, the Crimson would win a share of the Ivy title. It’s not what the preseason Ivy favorites had in mind at the outset of this year, but at this point, the team will take it.

—Staff writer Jacob D. H. Feldman can be reached at jacobfeldman@college.harvard.edu.

—Follow him on Twitter @jacobfeldman4.

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