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Penn-Harvard aftermath

It's hard to not see yesterday's win as Penn slamming the door shut on everything that has gone wrong over the last four years.

Penn 17, Harvard 7: My Inquirer recap | New York Times | Boston Globe

Postgame reactions from players and coaches on both teams are in the audio player below.

NEW HAVEN, Conn. - I've only covered two funerals in my life, and both were just a few months apart.

I forget the exact date, but it was somewhere in the middle of 2005 that John McAdams was laid to rest. I stood in the back of the room watching everyone you've ever seen at the Palestra, Citizens Bank Park and countless other places pass by the casket to pay respects.

The second time came a few months later, after Kyle Ambrogi committed suicide. There were so many people in attendance that afternoon that I couldn't get into the church, and had to stand next to a window to try to hear the eulogies.

I will never forget seeing Penn's coaches and players carrying Ambrogi's casket out to the hearse, an incredibly moving act of symbolism for the late fullback.

I bring this up because of the one thing I didn't mention in my recap of yesterday's Penn-Harvard game: the effect Ambrogi's suicide had on the Penn football program.

Al Bagnoli made a somewhat off-hand reference to it at this past Wednesday's local coaches luncheon, and the New York Times' Dave Caldwell explored the matter in some depth yesterday.

We will never truly know how much Ambrogi's suicide affected the Penn football program. Almost all of what little evidence we have took place on the field. The Quakers routed Columbia in their frst game after Ambrogi died, then laid him to rest two days later. The following Saturday, they thumped Yale at Franklin Field.

I covered that Columbia game for the Inquirer, and still remember seeing Dan "Coach Lake" Staffieri on the Penn sideline in a blue cheesehead-style hat adorned with Ambrogi's number, 31.

"There was a lot of frustration, a lot of sadness," running back Sam Mathews said at hte time. "For three hours today we were able to forget about everything and work on getting this game for Kyle. "

Al Bagnoli was even more forceful.

"That was my hope. That once the game started, we were going to be an angry team," he said. "Angry at everything that happened, the lack of rationale for how something like this could happen, and play angry and play emotional, and I think we did that."

So was linebacker Ric San Doval.

"This isn't going to stop. It's going to continue on week to week," he said. "Everyone tries to play with a purpose. But when something like this occurs, this is the purpose... We have someone up there watching over us."

But instead of moving forward, the wheels came off. Penn lost its last four games of the season, and finished 3-4 in Ivy League play. It was their first finish below .500 in a decade.

The end of that season brought some catharsis, but the 2006 season was another roller-coaster ride. With their kicking game a shambles, Penn became the first NCAA team to ever lose three straight games in overtime en route to another 3-4 finish.

The Quakers finished 3-4 again in 2007, including losses early at Dartmouth and in three overtimes at Yale.

Penn started last year 4-0, then lost at home to Brown. They had a chance to win a share of the title at home against Harvard, but Keiffer Garton was intercepted in the end zone with 20 seconds left in the game.

This year, though, there have been no almosts or nearlies. The defense has been exceptional, allowing only two offensive touchdowns since halftime of the Columbia game a month ago.

And I really don't think you can overstate the importance of Penn's win in overtime at Brown on Halloween. Whether or not it should have been, the circumstance was clearly in the heads of Penn's players. Their reactions after the game left no doubt.

The Quakers' offense finally came to life last week, even if it was against a really bad Princeton team. So the stage was set for yesterday's championship showdown.

What transpired was a first half that even Manny Pacquiao would have appreciated. Penn outgained Harvard 105 yards to 19 in the first quarter and 175 to 57 in the first half, and never looked back after that.

Harvard woke up in the second half, and had a chance to make things really interesting when it got to the goal line with just under three minutes in the game.

But Penn's defense stood up on fourth down, and the emotional release on their sideline was clear for all to see. Even though Harvard got one more possession before time ran out, Crimson coach Tim Murphy knew what he had just seen.

"They were the better team today, and they deserved to win," Murphy said of Penn.

Technically, the title race isn't over yet. If Cornell beats Penn and Harvard beats Yale, the Quakers and Crimson will split the championship. But just like only one Big Ten team goes to the Rose Bowl, only one Ivy League team knows that it came out on top.

I suppose I wouldn't have brought any of this up if Bagnoli hadn't first. But it's hard to not see yesterday's win as Penn slamming the door shut on everything that has gone wrong over the last four years.

It might not mean anything next season, but shedding the burdens of history is always of consequence.

Though their respective contexts are completely different, how do the Temple football fans among you feel about being bowl-eligible for the first time in 30 years? And how do the La Salle basketball fans among you feel about being an NCAA Tournament darkhorse? Wouldn't that put to rest the ghosts of the scandals that rocked Olney Ave. earlier this decade?

This has been quite a college football season so far. Now we're at the point where our local teams and fans are getting ready to celebrate.

Not a bad way to get ready for basketball season, is it?