October 22, 2011

Fourth-Quarter Comeback Leads Penn Past Yale, 37-25

490 Yards of Offense Not Enough for Bulldogs

PHILADELPHIA – The Yale football team was just one quarter way from knocking off the defending Ivy League champion, Penn, and snapping the Quakers' 17-game league winning streak Saturday afternoon at Franklin Field. But the Bulldogs' bid for the historic win unraveled as Penn scored 27 points in the game's final 13 minutes to come away with a 37-25 victory, knocking the Elis out of first place in the process.

Yale (3-3, 2-1 Ivy League) had a 7-3 halftime lead, and was up 20-10 heading into the fourth quarter. The Bulldogs were effective on offense (466 yards) against the Quakers' traditionally stout defense, as senior quarterback Patrick Witt threw for 258 yards and two touchdowns and senior tailback Alex Thomas ran for 204 (the first time Penn has allowed a 200-yard rusher since 1997) and a score. But when Yale's big-play receiver, junior Chris Smith, was knocked out of the game with an injury in the third quarter after racking up 148 yards and two touchdowns, things began turning in Penn's favor. The Eli offense only had to punt once in the second half -- right at the end of the third quarter -- but after that punt the Quakers reeled off back-to-back touchdown drives, squeezing in a recovery of a sky kick on a kickoff in between. That put Penn up 23-20, and while the Bulldogs did tie the game 23-23 they would never re-take the lead.

"It's frustrating," said Witt. "You're up by 10 going into the fourth quarter, you'd like to think that two scores going into one quarter would last a little longer than it did."

The sky kick, which came after a 16-yard touchdown from quarterback Billy Ragone to tight end Luke Nawrocki early in the fourth, was primarily intended just to thwart Yale's potent kick return game. But when the ball bounced on the turf at the Yale 39, Quakers running back Kyle Wilcox was able to pounce on it.

"We were really trying to make those big guys [on the Yale return team] run around and go get the ball, not be able to set the wedge," said Penn head coach Al Bagnoli, who picked up the 100th Ivy League win of his coaching career. "Connor Loftus hit it perfectly, the ball bounced, and we were fortunate to recover."

That set up another touchdown drive, capped by an 11-yard run from Quakers quarterback Billy Ragone. He hurt the Bulldogs all day long with both his arm (236 yards passing, three touchdowns) and his legs (94 rushing yards, one touchdown).

"We knew he was capable of making those types of plays with his legs," said Tom Williams, Yale's Joel E. Smilow '54 Head Coach of Football. "He's evasive. He made some guys miss and he had some good runs."

The Quakers ran the ball effectively from the get-go, racking up 29 yards on their first five runs. But when they tried a sixth run on third-and-one from the Yale 44, senior linebacker Wes Moyer and senior defensive lineman Reed Spiller stuffed it to force a punt. After the Bulldogs gained 34 yards, a punt from freshman Kyle Cazzetta pinned the Quakers back at their own 11, but they were able to drive far enough down field to get the game's first points, a 24-yard field goal by Loftus at 1:44.

A pair of big plays by senior free safety Geoff Dunham switched the momentum early in the second quarter. First, he broke up a pass intended for receiver Ryan Calvert, arriving just in time to knock the ball away. Then, he grabbed a tipped pass for an interception, returning it 13 yards to the Penn 47. Five plays later, Witt connected with Smith for a 12-yard touchdown at 9:45 of the second. The Bulldogs had been outgained 146-93 at that point, but still had a 7-3 lead.

The Quakers brought in Ryan Becker for Ragone for one series, and the Bulldog defense immediately put him on the run. Back-to-back pressures from junior linebacker Will McHale and senior defensive end Matt Battaglia forced incompletions from the Yale 32, and the Penn field goal attempt from there came up short to keep Yale's 7-3 lead intact.

A goal-line stand kept Yale in the lead heading into halftime. On second and goal from the Yale four, a sack by senior defensive lineman Pat Moran pushed the Quakers back to the 11. Ragone scrambled from there on third down but was brought down at the Yale one by Battaglia. His attempt to plunge over the goal line on fourth down was stood up by the Yale line, led by senior defensive end Cliff Foreman.

Two big pass plays got the Yale crowd to their feet early in the third quarter, even though one of them was called back. Right after sophomore wide receiver Deon Randall's leaping 31-yard grab at the Penn 17 was wiped out by an offensive pass interference call, the Bulldogs went right back to that side of the field with another bomb. This one was a 52-yarder to Smith that set the Bulldogs up at the Quaker six. Two plays later, Thomas ran the ball in from a yard out. The Bulldogs missed the extra point, but still led 13-3 with 11:05 left in the third.

The Quakers got a big pass play of their own on the next drive, a 46-yarder from Ragone to receiver Ryan Mitchell that got the ball to the Yale 22. On the next play Ragone hit receiver Joe Holder in the end zone to bring Penn within 13-10.

Just 90 seconds later the Bulldogs were facing a third-and-seven from their own 40 when Witt went to the air again with big results. He lofted one down the field, where Smith had his man beat. Smith hauled the ball in, avoided a lunging attempt at a tackle from behind, and raced into the end zone. Junior Philippe Panico's extra point made it 20-10.

The Quakers tried to answer with another big pass play, but senior cornerback Drew Baldwin leaped up and batted away Ragone's pass from the Penn 47 that reached the Yale five. Two plays later, junior cornerback Kurt Stottlemyer forced a punt when he stopped Quaker running back Brandon Colavita two yards shy of a first down after a short third-down pass.

Penn closed to within 20-16 early in the fourth on the 16-yard touchdown pass from Ragone to Nawrocki. Ragone set up the scoring toss with a 40-yard run up the middle on the play before.

The Quakers missed the extra point, but got another big play on special teams with Wilcox' recovery of Loftus' kickoff. Two plays after completing a 26-yard pass to Mitchell, Ragone scooted into the end zone for a 10-yard touchdown that gave the lead back to the Quakers, 23-20, with 11:42 to play.

"I thought the key play of the game was the sky kick that they recovered," Williams said. "You've got to give Penn credit. They're champions for a reason. They do a nice job of making the plays they're supposed to make."

Yale momentarily re-established control by going to the ground, where Thomas and the left side of the line pounded away for 46 yards on five straight runs. But the Bulldogs were stopped at the Penn 18, settling for a 35-yard field goal from Panico on to tie the game at 23.

Penn (4-2, 3-0 Ivy League) went back ahead on a 20-yard pass from Ragone to receiver Ryan Calvert with 6:07 to play. The Bulldogs then fumbled the kickoff, giving the ball back to the Quakers at the Yale 34. Three plays later, a 25-yard touchdown run by Colavita put the Quakers up 37-23.

Yale's next drive ended at the Penn seven, where an incompletion turned the ball over to the Quakers with 2:35 to play. Penn was not able to get a first down, and wound up taking a safety rather than punting from its own end zone.

Down by 14 points, the Bulldog offense took over at the Yale 40 with 2:03 to play. With Smith on the sideline, it limited the options for trying to march down the field quickly.

"It makes a difference," Williams said of the loss of Smith, also mentioning other injuries such as the loss of starting junior right tackle Roy Collins earlier in the game.  "Chris has been a guy that stretched the field. But at the same time we don't use these as excuses."

The Elis wound up turning the ball over on downs at their own 38 with 17 seconds to play, enabling the Penn offense to run out the clock for the 37-25 win.

With Harvard's 56-39 win over Princeton Saturday, the Crimson and the Quakers are now tied for first as the league's only 3-0 teams. Yale, which is tied for third at 2-1 with Brown, visits Columbia next Saturday.

Report by Sam Rubin '95 (sam.rubin@yale.edu), Yale Sports Publicity