Priore, Penn crash Harvard and Dartmouth's championship party

(STATS) – The Ivy League was supposed to be a two-horse race between Harvard and Dartmouth, but a rookie coach and a band of plucky Quakers turned it into a three-way finish.

With long-time assistant Ray Priore at the helm following Al Bagnoli's move to Columbia, Penn was expected to undergo a transition. Calling it a “transition” after a 1-3 start would've been kind, especially because the Quakers gave up the first 27 points in a 41-20 home loss to Dartmouth in their Ivy opener Oct. 3.

They responded by going unbeaten in league play the rest of the way, making Priore the first coach other than Bagnoli to lead them to a title since Ed Zubrow in 1988.

Penn made it official with a 34-21 win over Cornell on Nov. 21.

“We felt if we do one more rep, one more sprint, one more yard, we could conquer and do some real, real good things,” Priore said. “A very resilient team. It's the most gritty team I've ever been around here in my tenure. So proud of them. It is hard to win. For six straight weeks it was backs to the wall – must win. Every game is big.”

Still, the Quakers' signature win came on the penultimate day of the season, beating then-No. 12 Harvard 35-25 at Cambridge. The two sides traded blows as Penn blew a 15-point lead before recovering by shutting out the Crimson in the second half and ending their 22-game winning streak.

Despite the loss, Harvard won a third straight conference crown with a 38-19 win at Yale, taking a ninth straight installment of “The Game.”

Dartmouth's 17-10 win over Princeton on the final day of the season completed the first three-way split of the Ivy League championship since these same teams did it in 1982. However, the Big Green was nearly left out of the party before scoring 10 unanswered points in the fourth quarter. Dalyn Williams clinched the comeback by hitting Kyle Bramble on a 12-yard touchdown pass with 24 seconds left in regulation.

There was some poetic justice in the comeback after Harvard's Scott Hosch found Justice Shelton-Mosely on a scoring pass with 38 seconds left to beat Dartmouth 14-13 on Oct. 30. The Big Green's chances at dethroning the Crimson atop the league seemed dashed until Priore and Penn revived them.

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Other highlights:

LIONS FINALLY ROARED: Bagnoli's hiring at Columbia was seen as a chance to restore the roar in Morningside Heights, but three straight losses to start the season ran the Lions' losing streak to 24 games. It finally came to an end with a 26-3 romp of Wagner on Oct. 10 in the first meeting between New York teams separated by just 29 miles. The Lions added a 17-7 victory at Yale three weeks later, showing Bagnoli may have laid the foundation for them to eventually make a run at an Ivy championship for the first time since 1961.

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OFFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Hosch became the ninth Harvard player and fifth quarterback to win the Asa S. Bushnell Cup. A first-team All-Ivy selection, Hosch ended his collegiate career with a 19-1 record as a starter. He also set a Crimson single-season record for passing yards at 2,827 this season, while completing 61.9 percent of his attempts with a league-leading 22 touchdowns compared to six interceptions.

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DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Penn's punishing defense had an anchor in Tyler Drake. The senior linebacker was a unanimous first-team All-Ivy selection after leading the league with 8.5 sacks, the most by a Quaker since 2003. He also intercepted two passes with one coming in a dominant effort in a 34-20 win over Yale on Oct. 23. He added six tackles, one sack and a forced fumble as Penn built momentum in their championship run. While Drake's career ends with 17.5 sacks, he's the ninth Quaker to win the Bushnell Cup.

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SURPRISE OF THE YEAR: Following a 2-8 record – 2-5 in league play – and the hiring of Priore, expectations were very low for Penn. However, the Quakers turned into a juggernaut down the stretch, winning six straight and gaining a share of the league title. Penn also pulled off one of the biggest upsets of the season in FCS, beating then-fifth-ranked Villanova 24-13. While it was Priore's first victory, it was also the first time the Quakers beat the Wildcats since 1911.

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DISAPPOINTMENT OF THE YEAR: A lot was expected out of Yale's high-octane offense after it finished 2014 with a league-leading 263 points. The Bulldogs finished third with a 5-2 record in the Ivy League with the defeats coming against champion Harvard and second-place Dartmouth. That success earned them enough votes in the preseason poll to be considered the third team in contention for the title. The Bulldogs, however, lacked the bite and the offense sputtered in 2015 and that was on display while totaling 49 points in losses to Dartmouth, Penn, Columbia and Harvard.

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BY THE NUMBERS:

7 – Number of rookie head coaches to win the Ivy League crown, Priore became the first to do it since Dartmouth's John Lyons in 1992.

2 – No. 20 Harvard was joined by 23rd-ranked Dartmouth in the STATS FCS Top 25, giving the Ivy League two teams in the rankings to end a season for the first time since 2007.

164.1 – Penn QB Alek Torgersen's passer rating, which ranked fifth in FCS.

4 – The number of yards that separated Harvard's Paul Stanton Jr. (809) and Cameron Molina (805) of Columbia for the Ivy League rushing crown.

195 – Combined receptions by Brown wide receivers Alexander Jette (68), Troy Doles (66) and Brian Strachan (61) – all finishing in the league's top five.

15 – Interceptions thrown by the Bears' Marcus Fuller, who had seven in 2014.

12 – Fuller's touchdown total to Jette, Doles and Strachan with his only other going to tight end Oliver Bucka.

8,952 – Dalyn Williams' Dartmouth record for total offense, passing the previous mark held by Jay Fielder (7,249) set from 1991-93.

19.1 – The drop in average points allowed by Columbia from 2014 to '15. The Lions yielded 19.8 per game this past season, third-lowest in the Ivy League behind Dartmouth (10.1) and Harvard (13.0).

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NEXT YEAR: Surprises are over for Penn, as it'll be expected to build on its championship season with another run. The Quakers will return Torgersen for his senior season and he'll have his top target back in Justin Watson. The wide receiver led the league with 74 catches, 1,082 yards and nine touchdowns. Harvard is practically a perennial contender in the Ivy League and 2016 should be no different.