Penn beats Villanova for the first time in 104 years


Penn beats Villanova for the first time in 104 years

Updated: 11:25 p.m.

VILLANOVA, Pa. -- It took Ray Priore only two games as Penn’s head coach to make history.

Fueled by a smart performance from junior quarterback Alek Torgersen, a strong rushing attack and a game-changing 90-yard fumble return touchdown from linebacker Donald Panciello, Penn stunned No. 5 Villanova, 24-13, on Thursday night at Villanova Stadium for the program’s first win over the Wildcats in 104 years.

The last time Penn beat Villanova was on Oct. 14, 1911 in a 22-0 victory. The programs then took a 59-year hiatus from playing each other with Villanova winning every game in the rivalry when it resumed -- until now.

“It’s really tough to comprehend right now, to be honest with you,” Priore said. “Wow, just wow. It’s been a long time since this happened.”

The Quakers (1-1), who were handily beaten by Lehigh in their season opener, completely dominated the John Robertson-less Wildcats (2-2) from the opening whistle, marking the program’s first-ever win over a top-five team on the road and Priore’s first win as head coach.

Before Thursday, Penn had lost 14 straight games to Villanova, 13 of which came under the watch of Al Bagnoli, who stepped down from his post at Penn last year and is now at Columbia. And the last three losses came by a combined 79 points.

But under the lights of Villanova Stadium, the Quakers flipped the script, riding two first-half TD passes from Torgersen to sophomore receiver Justin Watson and sustained defensive pressure on ’Nova redshirt freshman quarterback Zach Bednarczyk, who threw for 185 yards and an interception in his first collegiate start.

Bednarczyk was filling in for reigning Walter Payton Award winner Robertson, who is out indefinitely after tearing his PCL in last week’s win over Delaware, putting a serious dent into the Wildcats’ national championship -- and even FCS playoff -- hopes.

But even without their star QB -- and a couple of starters on the offensive line -- longtime Villanova head coach Andy Talley expected better.

Much better.

“I really can’t explain it,” Talley said. “I would like to be able to. It’s probably one of the worst performances in my career here.”

If the win itself wasn’t shocking enough, the sheer magnitude of how much Penn dominated the first half against the fifth-ranked team in the FCS was even more so.

The Quakers outgained the host Wildcats in yards, 219-29. They controlled the time of possession battle, 24:25-5:35. They had 16 first downs to Villanova’s two. And, perhaps most remarkably, they ran 36 more plays than Villanova (48-12) before halftime.

Two of those plays were TD strikes from Torgersen to Watson, the first a 12-yard pass to cap a nine-play, 75-yard drive to open the game and a second a 33-yard second-quarter TD in which Watson broke a tackle to burst into the end zone.

“We have a good defense,” Talley said. “We just strained them too much. You can only strain a good group for so long.”

Despite Penn’s first-half dominance, which also included going 7 for 12 on third down, the Quakers were probably kicking themselves at halftime for taking only a 14-0 lead into the locker room. That’s because on three of their five red zone trips, they came up completely empty, misfiring on a fourth-down attempt from the 19 in the first quarter, missing a 34-yard field goal attempt on the first play of the second quarter and throwing an interception in the end zone on their final play of the first half, which Malik Reeves returned all the way into Penn territory.

But Villanova never even sniffed the red zone in the first half as Bednarczyk struggled to keep Villanova on the field and the Wildcats were doomed by penalties, dropped passes and turnovers.

“I think we just killed ourselves -- committing penalties, fumbling, interceptions,” Bednarczyk said. “It’s tough sitting [on the bench] for a long time but when we were on the field we just couldn’t get it done. There was no excuse for that.”

Things didn’t get much better for the ’Cats early in the second half as they went three-and-out and threw an interception on their first two drives.

But after Jimmy Gammill kicked 40-yard field goal to open a 17-0 lead for Penn with 4:14 left in the third quarter, Villanova finally showed some signs of life, driving 74 yards down the field in eight plays, capped by a one-yard TD plunge from running back Gary Underwood.

Villanova was then poised to cut Penn’s lead to three midway through the fourth quarter before Javon White fumbled the ball inside the 10 and Panciello raced 90 yards for a TD to ice the game.

What was Panciello thinking about as he rumbled toward history?

“Oxygen,” Priore joked.

“I saw open green and I saw a bunch of white to my left and I tried not to look back,” Panciello said. “I saw the end zone. I knew we had to score right there.”

The fumble return effectively ended the game as not even a late ’Nova TD pass to Jarrett McClenton could stop the Quakers from accomplishing something that hadn’t been done since the Taft administration.

And then, in front of a stunned ’Nova crowd, the Quakers celebrated an upset 104 years in the making, dancing and screaming on the sideline, in the locker room and on the bus back to Philly.

“It’s crazy,” said Torgersen, who completed 14 of 22 passes for 171 yards. “For us to break a 103-year streak is unbelievable. It’s kind of just setting in that we did this.”

“The school paper said that with the Pope in town, we needed a Hail Mary,” Priore added. “Well, I think god was on our side today.” 

Jay Wright talks Saddiq Bey, missing March Madness, Phillies

USA Today Images

Jay Wright talks Saddiq Bey, missing March Madness, Phillies

It's been 12 days since Villanova's season ended abruptly due to the coronavirus crisis. Jay Wright held a video conference on Wednesday to discuss a number of topics. 

Here are the major takeaways from Wright's session with the media.  

This March is different

Villanova missed out on opportunities to win a fourth straight Big East Tournament and participate in the NCAA Tournament for the 15th time in the last 16 years. The Wildcats won eight of their final nine games to clinch a share of the Big East regular season title. Not having a chance to shine in the postseason stings. 

"Missing the NCAA Tournament is obviously tough for our guys," Wright said. "We felt like we were playing great basketball, coming on strong. I always say we want to play our best basketball at the end of the year, and I think we were doing that. It is what it is, our guys get it. 

"It's a great example of our mantra 'attitude'. We try to teach our guys that you don't have control over what happens in life. What you do have control of is your response to what happens to you. 

"I don't know if there's even been a March where I wasn't either in (the NCAA Tournament), watching it or recruiting during it. I'm testing myself on what else is there in me? Being a better father, being a better husband. Spending more time with the kids, watching more movies, reading more, trying to be more worldly. I'm not very good at it but I'm trying."

Will Saddiq Bey leave for the NBA? 

Arguably the biggest question concerning Wright's team heading into the offseason is will Saddiq Bey leave for the NBA or will he return for his junior season at Villanova? Wright mentioned that Bey was especially disappointed when this season was cut short. He realizes that he has a big decision to make on his future. Wright discussed Bey's future plans as well as freshman Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, who is also considered an NBA prospect. 

"The NBA is still on hold," Wright said. "They don't have a plan yet for what they're going to do with the pre-draft process or the draft yet. Saddiq and Jeremiah probably both will go through that process when we find out what it is. They're waiting on us for information, should they start working out? We're trying to get them as much information as possible. 

"If we were in a normal timeline, they would both go through the process. As we learn what the NBA is going to do there are so many possibilities. Just to take it to an extreme, there's a possibility they might not have a pre-draft process and just have the draft with no workouts, using the evaluations they had during the season. 

"We're communicating with both of them daily. Saddiq is having a tough time trying to find a place to work out in [his hometown] Washington D.C. He just got a gym to get into so he can shoot, he can't find a gym to get into to lift. Jeremiah is trying to find a place around here to get into to shoot."

2020 Summer Olympics postponed

Wright was supposed to spend a portion of his summer as an assistant coach for the U.S. Olympic men's basketball team in Tokyo. But with this week's announcement that the Olympics are postponed, his plans have changed. 

"It's the right decision," Wright said. "I feel bad for all of those athletes that it's once in a lifetime experience. I really feel bad for them. For basketball guys it's not as difficult. I talked with [U.S. head coach Greg Popovich] yesterday. It's postponed, obviously not cancelled, postponed until some time next spring or summer. There's a lot of questions there. They could do it late spring, when you might not have NBA players. If they did it in the summer maybe you do have NBA players. We have to wait for the IOC to make those decisions. 

"For us personally (at Villanova), it's kind of crazy because we thought we came up with this great plan. I was going to have to leave our offseason program for the Olympics. We had a plan to work around that, and now it doesn't matter. We'll be here in June and July. Now we don't even know if the players will be here. We worked so hard to put this plan in place for me being away and now it doesn't even matter."

Phillies season on hold

A Bucks County native, Wright is a huge Philadelphia sports fan. He had Phillies season tickets as a kid and is a regular at Citizens Bank Park during the summer months. Like all Phillies fans, he's disappointed the baseball season isn't starting this week.

"The end of the basketball season was always sobering," Wright said. "But what always saved us was the start of the Phillies. Opening Day and the start of baseball season in our family is a big deal. 

"We watch the spring training games, we'll even joke, 'Who do the Phillies play tonight?' It's really surreal. Spring time without baseball, especially the Phillies, is bizarre. It's really the way myself and my family get ourselves out of basketball mode. We go to Opening Day, we go to the Phillies games, we love 'Bark in the Park', we always bring the dogs. We're really going to miss it."

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Florida Gulf Coast's massive NCAA Tournament upset in Philly was the Best Game I Ever Saw Live

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Florida Gulf Coast's massive NCAA Tournament upset in Philly was the Best Game I Ever Saw Live

I'll be honest. My North Philadelphia roots didn't make room for a lot of in-person sporting events. So as an adult, getting to the games was a must and the NCAA Tournament was always high on the list. Every March, I rooted for the Philly teams and the players I loved. So when the tournament came to Wells Fargo Center in March of 2013, I was all in. 

Thanks to Florida Gulf Coast University I got the complete and full embodiment of March Madness and then some.

The WFC has seen a ton of great basketball, from Allen Iverson's ear cupped encores to the frenzied success of Villanova's second home in South Philly. 

I guarantee you it was never wilder there than when this bracket-busting 15-seed had fans mobbing them in the hallway after an upset over Georgetown.

FGCU had all the swagger of James Brown in a fresh jumpsuit taking the court against the Hoyas. I had no idea what I was about to see.

They called themselves "Dunk City" and by the time the game was over, Georgetown was also calling them Daddy. I actually had Georgetown going to the Final Four in my personal tournament bracket, which as a 2-seed was a pretty mundane pick. That may also explain some of the bitter feelings I have thinking back on the cocktail of emotions I experienced as FGCU turned my "sheet of integrity" into liner for my cats' litter box. 

I'll never forget how those blue and green uniforms flew up and down the court, dunk after dunk. But it wasn't just the fact that they were dunking or hitting important shots, it was the way they were doing it. There were alley-oops, back-door slams, tip dunks, chin-ups on the rim. There were heat check three-pointers from Conshohocken, catch-and-shoot, in-your-face threes. The FGCU Eagles were talking trash and backing it up, the whole. nine. yards.

These kids absolutely knew they could beat Georgetown and then went out and did it with as much bravado and moxie as if destiny owed them a favor. When the weekend was over, I guess it did. They beat San Diego State to reach the Sweet 16. The only 15-seed to ever do it.

For a city that loves a good underdog, this was Vince Papale and Rudy with a little Bad News Bears on the side. Unbelievable. Happy to say I was in the building for a flat-out epic NCAA Tournament game which brought the captivating theater of the unexpected right into my lap.