Alek Torgersen made the most of his final drive at Franklin Field.
With Friday night’s Ivy League showdown vs. Harvard — and the conference title — hanging in the balance, Penn’s standout senior quarterback orchestrated a masterful two-minute drill to lift the Quakers to a 27-14 victory, handing the Crimson their first Ivy loss.
And as usual, he found his favorite target, capping a 10-play, 80-yard drive with a two-yard touchdown pass to star junior Justin Watson with 15 seconds left to keep Penn’s hopes of winning at least a share of its second straight Ivy League championship alive.
The passing touchdown was Torgersen’s 51st at Penn, a new school record. He finished with 263 passing yards, 120 of which went to Watson, who hauled in 10 catches.
“We had one last time to light up the Frank,” Torgersen said, “and I couldn’t be happier to throw a touchdown pass to win a game vs. Harvard to keep us in contention for the Ivy title. It feels good right now.”
The Quakers sealed the win in emphatic fashion with their second defensive touchdown of the game as Taylor Hendrickson returned a fumble 18 yards as time expired.
Penn (6-3, 5-1) and Harvard (7-2, 5-1) are now tied for first place in the Ivies with one game to go, along with Princeton, which shut out the Quakers last week. If all three teams finish up with wins, it will mark the second straight season that three teams shared the Ivy title after Penn, Harvard and Dartmouth all won a piece of the 2015 crown.
If Harvard and Penn both earn a share of the title, the two dominant programs will have combined to have won 30 Ivy championships over the last 31 years.
“We took a tough shot last week up at Princeton,” second-year Penn head coach Ray Priore said. “And I’m so proud of how they rebounded.”
On a cold and windy night under the lights of Franklin Field, Harvard rallied to tie the game with just 3:23 remaining on a 26-yard touchdown pass from Joe Viviano to Joseph Foster and an ensuing successful two-point conversion attempt on a reverse handoff and halfback pass.
Before that drive, Penn’s defense — which had struggled for much of the season — was dominant and opportunistic, especially in the first half.
The only touchdown before halftime came when defensive end Louis Vecchio tipped a ball to himself at the line of scrimmage, picked it off and returned it 40 yards to paydirt to give the Quakers a 7-3 lead at halftime.
“The first thing I thought about when I got the ball was don’t fumble,” said Vecchio, who also finished with three of the team’s six sacks and a forced fumble. “The other thing was, ‘I gotta get in the end zone as fast as I can.’ Everything happened so fast. Everything was just reaction.”
Cornerback Mason Williams also intercepted two passes — one that stalled Harvard’s final drive of the first half and another that prevented the Crimson from scoring midway through the second quarter after Penn fumbled a punt and gave Harvard great field position.
Penn’s offense — which has been explosive behind the three-pronged attack of Torgersen, Watson and running back Tre Solomon most of the year — finished with only 109 yards and four first downs in the first half. And heading into the second half, the Quakers’ offense had gone scoreless for eight straight quarters.
But Penn snapped out of its funk shortly after halftime with Torgersen — one of the seniors honored before the game for playing in his final home game — throwing a nice looping ball down the sideline to sophomore receiver Christian Pearson for a 47-yard touchdown with 10:30 left in the third quarter, putting the Quakers up 14-3.
That looked to be enough for Penn’s defense, which came up with a big fourth-down stop late in the third quarter and held the Crimson to another field goal early in the fourth quarter. But then both teams rallied for huge scoring drives, setting up a wild finish between two of the league’s top teams and a huge final game for Penn at frosty Cornell.
“As we said to the boys, ‘Be safe tonight and we’ll get to work on Cornell tomorrow,’” Priore said. “The one guarantee about next weekend is it’s not going to be sunny.”
Friday’s game was played under a dark backdrop with some students protesting outside Franklin Field and briefly inside the stadium on the same day black freshmen students were added to a hateful GroupMe message group filled with racial slurs. Penn has been a hotbed of protest all week after the election of Donald Trump, a 1968 Wharton graduate. The Penn Band, known for comedic antics, called for unity before the game began, saying over the Franklin Field loudspeaker, “We need to support each other as a community, now more than ever.”
Priore said the team had not talked about the election much this week but was pleased to learn that many students wanted to come to Franklin Field on Friday night, even if some were delayed entry because of the protest.
“We don’t just play for ourselves,” Priore said. “We play for the whole Penn family, the whole Penn community. That’s really important to us.”