The last time Yale won at Penn, most of the current members of the football team had barely learned how to walk.
The Bulldogs head to Franklin Field on Saturday hoping to record their first victory there since 1990. Although Penn started off 0-3 for the first time in head coach Al Bagnoli’s 16-year tenure this year, the Quakers seem to be rounding into shape after recording two blowout victories against Georgetown and Columbia.
“Our mantra for the last couple of weeks has been trying to get better week to week,” Bagnoli said. “We’re heading in the right direction — we just have to get ourselves solidified in terms of the quarterback position.”
The Quakers, who rank last in the Ivies in passing efficiency, have been struggling to find an answer at quarterback the entire season. Heading into the year, Bagnoli hoped Robert Irvin would build off of an impressive sophomore campaign that saw him earn an honorable mention All-Ivy distinction after passing for 2,128 yards.
But nagging injuries limited Irvin’s effectiveness, and the Quaker offense stalled in the season opener. Irvin threw two interceptions en route to a disappointing 8-7 loss in which Lafayette scored five points off of a safety and a field goal in the final five minutes.
After a disappointing loss against Villanova that included seven Quaker interceptions, senior quarterback Bryan Walker took over as the starter against Dartmouth. Despite falling to the Big Green 21-13, Walker cut down on the mistakes and completed 30 of 60 passes for 266 yards without a single interception.
The Quaker offense shook the rust off against Georgetown and Columbia to notch their first two wins of the season, outscoring their opponents 101-41 while picking up 514 yards on the ground.
“They’ve gone back to what they were,” Yale head coach Jack Siedlecki said. “Early in the year, I was shocked when I watched the Dartmouth game. They had two fourth and twos and they were in the shotgun with wide open formations trying to convert fourth and two. That’s not typical Penn.”
“Typical Penn” means smashmouth football — a reliance on the running game and a dominating defense. Bagnoli rode that formula to six Ivy League championships, including an undefeated season in 2003, and Division I-AA’s longest-ever winning streak. Six of the top 10 rushers in Quaker history have been coached by Bagnoli.
The latest Penn running back is senior Joe Sandberg, a former first-team All-Ivy selection who is ranked second in the Ivies with 479 yards rushing — 516 yards behind Yale’s Mike McLeod ’09. Sandberg set a career high against Columbia with 197 yards on 22 carries, giving him 314 yards on nine yards per rush in the past two weeks.
“He’s a really tough back,” linebacker Bobby Abare ’09 said. “He’s got some shake to him and it’s going to take more than one guy to bring him down.”
If the Elis hope to dominate the time-of-possession battle as they did against Lehigh — holding the ball for nearly 41 minutes — they will need to stop Sandberg early and force the Quakers to throw.
On the other side of the ball, the key to the Bulldog rushing attack will be stopping first-team All-Ivy nose tackle Naheem Harris. Against Columbia, Harris picked up a sack and 1.5 tackles behind the line of scrimmage despite consistently drawing double-teams.
“Penn’s always good,” Siedlecki said. “They’ve always got good personnel. They’re always very physical. Honestly, they were the team we kind of measured ourselves against physically. I’ve always thought they were one of the strongest teams in the league.”
The Bulldogs — losers in 12 of their last 15 games against the Quakers — will try to keep history from repeating itself this Saturday at Franklin Field.