Even after the fifth time in the red zone was finally the charm, there was still work to do before Penn could walk off venerable Franklin Field with a harder-than-it should’ve-been 13-10 win over Columbia Saturday.
Not until freshman Mohammed Diakite stepped in front of a fallen receiver for an interception that sealed the deal with seven seconds left on the clock, could the Quakers breathe a sigh of relief and celebrate.
Otherwise, this could’ve been a happy homecoming for Lions’ coach Al Bagnoli, who spent 23 years with the Red and Blue winning nine Ivy titles, before deciding to take over Columbia’s shamble of a program.
Instead, his former right-hand man, Ray Priore, was able to savor his third win in four tries over his mentor.
“When it’s somebody you’ve worked with for a very long time and you’re good friends, like anything else you’re competitors on this day,” explained Priore, whose 4-1 Quakers remain alive in the Ivy race at 1-1, trailing 2-0 Princeton and Dartmouth.
“It’s no different than it was a year ago up. It was 24-7 then and we let them back in. Give them credit, but we have to finish.”
They barely managed to get that done on Saturday thanks to a fortunate referee’s spot on a key fourth down play and the Diakite’s pick right when Columbia was on the verge of setting up for a field goal that could’ve sent it into overtime. That came moments after the Lions had connected on a 43-yard bomb on 4th-and-18 at their own 4-yard line.
Priore knew his team never should’ve been in that position in the first place, having managed just two Jack Soslow field goals in four trips to the red zone. Rather than having a comfortable lead, they suddenly found themselves down 10-6 when Columbia converted a muffed punt at one end and a short punt at the other into scores.
“I think we’re playing sporadic right now,” said Priore, after sophomore quarterback Ryan Glover’s four-yard run on the option finally gave them the lead with 6:55 left in the game, then the defense made just enough plays to hang on.
“We moved the ball up and down the field but left points on the field with some missed opportunities. You don’t necessarily survive those.”
Somehow the Quakers did, frustrating Bagnoli, who’s done wonders since taking over a Columbia program that was in the midst of a 23-game losing streak in 2015. In his fourth season, he’s now 3-2,16-19 overall, coming off an 8-2 year that included a 34-31 overtime win over the school he left.
It’s a decision he insists was never planned.
“If I knew I was going to stay in coaching I would’ve stayed at Penn,” said Bagnoli, who went 148-80 at the helm of the Quakers and is currently 15 wins behind Yale’s Carm Cozza for the most in Ivy history.
“We’re getting better [Columbia], and I’m more energized because the challenges are much different. I think every school has challenges, but this one has unique challenges different than the ones at Penn.”
At least now when Bagnoli comes back he doesn’t have to worry about facing any former players or recruits.
“It’s far enough away where you don’t recognize any of the players,” said the former Penn head coach, who had to go with backup quarterback Josh Bean and several other reserves due to injuries.
“The first time it was weird because a good portion of the kids were my recruits. Now there’s been some separation and it’s not much different than anywhere else except I know more of the administrators. I view it as a tough place to come in and play.”
Ages ago, the Lions were an Ivy force led by Hall of Fame quarterback Sid Luckman. The Quakers, with Chuck Bednarik and other greats, were right there, too. While their 2018 counterparts are no longer on that level, they still put on a show that went down the wire.
“I can live with getting beaten by somebody,” said Priore, who has a short week to prepare with Yale coming in on Friday.
“But when you’re out there beating yourselves, making thing tough on yourselves, you have to correct that,” he explained. “At the same token, I’m very proud of them for being so resilient.”
Consequently, Penn was able to take care of business against an old friend.