If last year was a tale of two seasons for Penn football, Saturday was a tale of two halves.
Hosting Lehigh in the team’s season opener, the Quakers fell, 49-28, scoring 28 first-half points before getting shut out in the second half to the previously winless Mountain Hawks (1-2).
Opening the year at Lehigh in 2015, Penn (0-1) found themselves facing a 21-7 deficit by halftime. The Red and Blue were determined, this time, to jump to the early start.
After electing to take the ball first, having won the coin toss, senior quarterback Alek Torgersen proceeded to lead the Quakers down the field for an opening-drive touchdown — capped off by a 24-yard connection between Torgersen and junior wideout Justin Watson.
“It was just nice because I know [sophomore wide receiver Christian] Pearson was hanging his head a little bit, so just being able to lift him up was awesome, and it’s always fun to score,” Watson said, referring to Pearson’s drop of a near-certain touchdown earlier in the drive.
The Mountain Hawks responded as they would throughout the game — leaving the Red and Blue unable to slow down Lehigh’s steady offensive machine — driving 75 yards down the field in 10 plays to knot things up.
With four players carrying the ball at least eight times — including 71 yards on 12 rushes for senior quarterback Nick Shafnisky — the Mountain Hawks burned Penn for 231 yards on the ground, opening the door for a three-touchdown, 317-yard game through the air for Shafnisky.
Although the Quakers translated a Mason Williams interception into a touchdown and a 14-7 lead, they were never able to get separation from their in-state foes.
The two sides traded touchdowns throughout the first half and, just when it seemed like Penn would go into the half up 28-21, a roughing the passer penalty on the Quakers gave Lehigh one last shot at the end zone before the half — and Shafnisky rushed his way in for the touchdown, deflating Priore’s squad.
“I think it really hurt Penn,” Shafnisky said of the last score. “Then they came out a little bit flat, in my opinion, in the second half. That’s what really got us going. The linemen saw that, and they took advantage of it.”
After that late score, the Red and Blue seemed unable to get the wind back in their sails.
“There’s a certain condition, you can never simulate that type of energy, that exhaustion, when you’re playing in practice,” Penn coach Ray Priore said. “And obviously we came out in the second half, we didn’t have that kind of pop that we were looking for all the way around.”
Tre Solomon, who had rushed for 58 yards on just six carries in the first half, gained just one more yard on three carries before being replaced by senior back Brian Schoenauer — who unexpectedly saw no time in the first half after Priore elected to stick with Solomon as the hot hand.
Solomon’s second-half struggles were by no means unique to the junior tailback. The Quakers were shut out in the final 30 minutes, not running a single play in Mountain hawk territory.
Although junior punter Hunter Kelley launched five 50-yard punts in the second half — including one that pinned Lehigh at the 3 — Priore’s defense just couldn’t get the stop.
And so a game where Penn had been on the verge of taking a lead into the half steadily slipped out of reach.
While Torgersen was able to make things happen on offense in the opening frames — he gained 86 yards on the ground and 222 in the air for four total touchdowns — he logged just 43 passing yards in the second half and -3 on the ground.
“We knew we could take advantage of me running the ball,” Torgersen said. I’m sure they didn’t expect me to come out and be able to do what I did on the ground — they probably thought we were gonna pass a lot. Just going into the week it was part of the gameplan.”
That — in tandem with Watson’s eight-catch, 133-yard, two-touchdown game — is a positive sign for Priore, particularly going up against a Lehigh squad already on its third game of the season.
“Winning is hard. People don’t understand how hard winning is,” Priore said. “You’ve gotta work really hard to it, and you’ve gotta play for four quarters. Our kids learned that you can’t come out and put points on the board — that’s not enough.”
Although the Quakers may have wanted a win, they retain the solace that, as long as the Ivy League retains its FCS postseason ban, the only record that matters comes in Ivy play.
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