If you were in attendance the last time Penn football and Princeton faced off, you couldn’t have asked for much more.
A 10-point second-half comeback. A clutch fourth-down stop by then-junior Donald Panciello at the one-yard-line. “The Block,” when Panciello got a hand on Nolan Bieck’s game-winning field goal attempt at the buzzer. A walk-off touchdown by then-senior Eric Fiore to send the rowdy Red and Blue Homecoming crowd of 11,017 – Penn’s largest of the season – into a frenzy.
And, most importantly, a seemingly impossible win in the 107th all-time meeting between two passionately bitter rivals to keep Penn in contention for what proceeded to be an arguably even more improbable run to the Ivy League championship.
So with the Quakers and Tigers entering their first rematch since then, the natural question is: how do you follow that?
“Obviously that was a great win for our program, but that was last year,” coach Ray Priore said. “We don’t worry about encores; we just worry about going one play at a time and playing with a lot of emotion.”
For Princeton (5-2, 3-1 Ivy), last year’s frustratingly close defeat was a microcosm of the Tigers’ season as a whole, as the squad lost four Ancient Eight games by only one possession en route to a deceptive sixth-place finish.
But a vastly improved team that returned eight All-Ivy selections from a year ago – three more than Penn, the next closest team – has come out with a vengeance to prove that 2015 was a fluke, winning three of their first four conference games with the lone loss coming to unbeaten Harvard in overtime.
Additionally, one advantage the Tigers could have this time around is the presence of do-it-all junior John Lovett, who missed last year’s game at Penn. Lining up at quarterback, running back and wide receiver, Lovett leads the entire FCS with 14 rushing touchdowns while also having caught one and thrown for eight more, spearheading a balanced Princeton attack that leads the conference with 35.6 points per game.
“Princeton has a great offense and John is a great player, but we’re just trying to play Penn defense, and we’re not really worried about anybody on their team,” linebacker Colton Moskal said. “It’s going to be a great matchup, and we’re just excited to play them.”
Still, it’s on the other side of the ball where the Tigers have arguably made their greatest strides. An experienced front seven led by linebacker Luke Catarius and defensive lineman Henry Schlossberg has allowed a measly 2.41 yards per carry – the nation’s fourth-lowest mark – representing a stark contrast from the 2015 team that allowed Penn to run wild for 217 yards.
So it might be an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object when that defensive front takes on a Penn (5-2, 4-0) rushing attack that has shredded Ancient Eight defenses. A completely healthy Tre Solomon has put up a league-leading 670 rushing yards and 5.6 yards per carry, while the team leads the conference with a stellar 183.1 yards per game on the ground.
“I think what they’ve done is a great job obviously stopping the run ... and what you have to do to them is take what they give you -- can’t force the run or the pass,” Priore said. “We have to be smart with the ball, and the game is really going to come down to that turnover battle.”
So while it may be difficult for the 108th all-time Penn-Princeton matchup to live up to the ridiculous standard set by last year’s showdown, with two evenly matched teams going head-to-head with Princeton’s revenge, Penn’s undefeated league record and rivalry bragging rights at stake, it’d be foolish to bank against it.
“[Last year] gives them a little bit of fuel, because we know that they’re going to be hungry to take back that win,” wide receiver Cam Countryman said, “but we’re just as hungry to make sure that we handle our business.”
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