priore

Coach Ray Priore's squad heads into the season finale with a heavy case of déjà vu, writes Jacob Adler.

In the movie business, sequels rarely hold up to the original. It’s tough enough to make one good movie, and even more difficult to make another one with the same cast of characters.

After entering the 2015 season ranked sixth in the Ivy League preseason media poll and dropping three of its first four games, Penn football won six straight to share the Ancient Eight title with Harvard and Dartmouth. It made for a great story of coach Ray Priore’s first season at the helm.

This summer, the question arose as to how the Quakers would follow up their shocking season. They were now on the radar, receiving the most first-place votes along with a second-place projection in the preseason media poll. The underdog storyline was discarded, and we knew something else would happen. We just didn’t know what.

For the most part, 2016 started off in similar fashion. There were early-season losses to Lehigh and Fordham, and some of my fellow columnists and students wondered if the Quakers were capable of claiming the Ivy League. The Red and Blue again collected a victory against its third non-conference opponent, Villanova in 2015 and Central Connecticut State in 2016.

Then came the winning streak. Last year’s six-game winning streak began at Columbia and continued through the rest of the season. This year, the and Red and Blue took five in a row, from Dartmouth in the third week to Brown in the seventh.

Again, there was the embarrassing loss to an Ivy contender. Last year at Franklin Field, Dartmouth quarterback Dalyn Williams came in and accounted for six touchdowns en route to a 41-20 blowout. At that point in the season, the Big Green looked like a much better team and the Quakers’ title chances were bleak.

This year, that game came later on in the season, when the Quakers fell 28-0 at Princeton. After the rout by the Tigers, it was again fair to wonder what the Red and Blue’s chances were — they had a must-win game against unbeaten Harvard the next week.

In both seasons, Penn went into the Harvard game at 6-3 (5-1 Ivy) aiming to deal the Crimson its first loss. Both times, Harvard had beaten the team that Penn lost to, making possible a three-way tie.

So we’re eight games into the season, and it’s déjà vu for the Quakers. As Ice Cube’s character, Captain Dickson, said in 22 Jump Street, “It’s the same case! Do the same thing!”

From some aspects, the Harvard game was similar to that of 2015.

Friday, Penn had difficulty managing the Crimson’s stout defensive line, rushing for 21 yards on 20 attempts, and punted nine times. Last year, removing Watson’s 79-yard run put the Quakers at 85 yards on 40 attempts, and they punted six times.

The passing game was again the bright spot of the Penn offense. In Cambridge last year, then-junior quarterback Alek Torgersen threw for 245 yards and two touchdowns. Those numbers were 263 and two on Friday. Junior wide receiver Watson was again spectacular, accounting for 120 yards and a score on Friday after 249 and two last year.

But the game was different. It didn’t stuff the stat sheets like last year’s 35-25 affair where Penn jumped out to a 14-0 lead and scored 14 unanswered to close out the game after the Crimson came back to take a 25-21 advantage. It was a hard-fought game by two teams whose defenses suffocated each other’s offenses.

The Quakers didn’t run a play in Harvard territory until a few minutes into the third quarter, when Torgersen found sophomore wide receiver Christian Pearson deep along the right sideline for a 47-yard touchdown. Prior to that touchdown, they had picked up just four first downs compared to five punts. And until the Red and Blue’s hyper-efficient game-winning drive late in the fourth quarter, the Quaker offense wasn’t making big plays.

The Quakers came away with the win on Friday because of the defense, the hero that rebounded majestically in a season where it disappointed against the three best offenses it played against in Penn’s three losses. Sacking Crimson quarterback Joe Viviano six times, intercepting him three times in key spots, and returning the final last-ditch play for a touchdown, the Penn defense reminded everyone of the force they were during the 2015 title run.

There’s your story. Penn had again found its groove and was cruising until Princeton stopped it in its tracks. And when the Quakers needed it the most, the defense pulled out a signature performance to take down Harvard in the season’s most important game.

That’s not a bad sequel. Now, Penn is hoping Cornell doesn’t spoil the movie — for the plot and the audience.

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