What could go wrong, did go wrong for most of Penn sprint football's game this weekend.
Penalties, turnovers and a missed field goal were a few of the many miscues that doomed Penn in a 24-14 defeat at home against Army.
The vaunted Black Knights' defense proved nearly impenetrable for the Quakers (2-1, 2-0 CSFL South) who scraped together a meager 125 yards of total offense. Sophomore quarterback Eddie Jenkins was often either under duress or unable to find receivers open down the field. On the night, Jenkins was only 12 of 33 for 157 yards with one touchdown and an interception through the air.
When his receivers got open, they failed to help their young quarterback, totaling three drops in the first half—two from sophomore tight end Billy Murphy and one from senior wide receiver Marcus Jones.
By the end of the first half, Penn was down 17-0. An offense that usually relies heavily on its run game put up only five rushing yards the entire first half.
“We did nothing as an offense to begin the game. The defense kept us in there,” Jenkins reflected. “We shot ourselves in the foot more than a couple times.”
In particular, the offense failed to put themselves in reasonable third down situations.
“Instead of being second and five, third and four we found ourselves in 2nd & 15 ’s, 3rd & 20’s,” Jenkins said. “It’s a lot harder to move the ball when you get in those situations.”
Conversely, the defense was the only thing keeping Penn in the game. One of the unit’s biggest moments of the first half came after a Jenkins fumble led to an Army recovery at Penn’s own three-yard line.
At this point, Army (3-0, 2-0 CSFL North) was up 7-0 with 9:52 left in the second quarter on the verge of making it a two-touchdown game. However, Penn had other plans, holding Army to a field goal after stuffing a run up the middle on third down.
“We had a lot of gut checks throughout the game,” freshman linebacker Connor Ashton said. “We just had to make big plays.”
On the Black Knights' next offensive possession after the made field goal, Army quarterback Keegan West found wide receiver Clayton Carter on a 54-yard bomb.
An interception at the end of the first half by Ashton after a touchdown-saving shoestring tackle from junior defensive back Guesippe Bevacqua the play before kept the game from getting completely out of hand before the intermission.
But throughout most of the second half, Penn continued to get in its own way. After the offense once again failed to move the chains, the Red and Blue were forced to punt near their own goal line. With less room to avoid the oncoming rush, punter Matt Caltabiano was powerless against a herd of Army defenders who swarmed him and recovered the ball in the end zone for a touchdown. At this point, Army had a seemingly insurmountable 24-0 lead.
Following the botched punt, on Army’s next offensive possession, the Penn defense was finally able to force and recover a fumble. However, Jenkins gave it right back, fumbling for the second time within his own 10-yard line. After another incredible defensive stand, Penn forced a missed field goal.
From that point on, the Quakers' fortunes changed.
With 3:06 left in the game, freshman defensive back Michael Doulong gave Penn the spark it needed, returning a 65-yard interception for a touchdown. Following a failed quarterback draw by Jenkins, Penn found itself down 24-6.
Penn still needed more players to step up to have a shot at a comeback, and sophomore kicker Theodoros Papazekos (who is also a DP Sports staffer) was the man for the job.
On the ensuing onside kick attempt, he dribbled the kick until it shot up over the line of the Army onside recovery team and into the grasp of the Quakers. Jenkins later found senior wide receiver Aiden Kelly for a 17-yard touchdown, following that up with a two-point conversion to Jones. With 2:02 left, Penn found itself down only 24-14.
Once again, the Red and Blue needed another onside kick to keep the comeback alive. However, instead of going back to Papazekos, the coaching staff elected to have Papazekos fake the onside attempt and have freshman Benji Robinov attempt a pooch kick. Army recovered the kick, but Penn coach Bill Wagner defended the decision to not let Papazekos attempt the same onside kick that had worked the first time, insisting that the second play failed in execution and not in concept.
Even after the failed onside kick from Robinov, Army gave Penn another chance after a botched snap on a punt attempt on fourth down led to a first and goal for Penn from the eight yard line, and a pass interference on a play intended for Jones led to a first and goal from the two yard line. But after three failed attempts to punch it in, Papazekos missed a chip shot field goal to seal Penn's fate and leave a remarkable comeback effort just a bit short.
“We continued to play, we continued to go after them, we didn’t pack it in all the way up to the last play of the game,” Wagner said of his team's ferocious comeback. “We’ve got to protect the quarterback, we’ve got to block for the guy that’s carrying the ball and we didn’t do that. [But] I think our defense played extremely well.”
Looking forward, Penn’s season is not over. However, it will need to to win out in the regular season if it hopes to win the South Division and face Army, the probable North Division champion, in the Collegiate Sprint Football League championship.
For now though, Penn is worried about fixing its own issues, particularly on the offensive end, before it worries about repeating as CSFL champion.
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