This one had it all — four first half turnovers, two blocked punts, two missed field goals, and injuries to junior running back Jake Klaus and junior wide receiver Aiden Kelly.
But through it all, Penn sprint football punched its ticket to the Collegiate Sprint Football League championship, defeating Navy 28-23.
To start, the Quakers (5-1, 3-0 South) were not dialed in. The first three drives of the game ended with a blocked punt, an interception from sophomore quarterback Eddie Jenkins, and a fumble by junior running back Max Jones, who filled in for Klaus.
Unfortunately for the Quakers, Navy (5-2, 2-1) took advantage of the miscues, jumping out to a 14-0 lead with 7:15 left in the first quarter.
However, just as they did in the Quakers' sole loss to Army, Penn’s defense took it upon themselves to get the Red and Blue back in the game. On the Navy drive immediately following the second touchdown, Penn senior linebacker Quinn Karam forced the ball out of the hands of Midshipmen running back Stefano Saragusa, and junior linebacker Sam Smallzman recovered at Navy’s 24 yard line.
After a series of failed rush attempts on the goal line from Karam, the Quakers caught a break after a Midshipmen rusher rammed into sophomore kicker Theodoros Papazekos on a successful 20-yard field goal. Given a new set of downs, Jenkins kept the ball on an option play, scampering around a Navy defender for a three-yard touchdown to bring the score to 14-7.
However, that scoring drive did not come without a cost. After getting his hand stepped on by a Navy defender, Klaus was forced to leave the game for a series.
To make matters worse, Penn could not get out of its own way. After another punt from senior Matt Caltabiano was blocked, Navy converted a field goal attempt to bring the score to 17-7. Then, even when the offense started finding success, Jones coughed up the ball once again.
No matter the excuse for the offense’s struggles, the defense needed to step up once again, and sophomore linebacker Matteo Murgia did just that, recovering another fumble to give Penn the ball at the Navy 11.
Three plays later, Jenkins found senior wide receiver Marcus Jones for a five-yard touchdown, the first of his two touchdown catches on the night, and Penn went into halftime down 17-14.
“Sloppy,” was the word used by Jenkins when describing the first half.
On Navy’s three scoring drives, its average starting field position was at Penn’s 12 yard line, so, despite Penn's enormous leads in time of possession and total yards, Penn was on the ropes.
“We went into the half knowing we played terrible,” Klaus reflected. “The fact that we were only down three points, we knew that we could just go out and execute. In the second half, we got the job done and that’s what matters.”
Even with the offense moving the ball down the field on consecutive possessions to start the third quarter, two narrowly missed 35-yard field goals from Papazekos caused the Quakers to come away empty handed.
“He’s a good kicker, he’s going to be our kicker,” coach Bill Wagner said. “He just needs to continue to work at it and build his confidence even more. He’s got a strong leg.”
Even with the array of miscues, the special teams was not all bad for Penn. Navy had two dynamic returners that Penn neutralized due to squib kicks from Papazekos.
“Our special teams on kickoffs had a great, great, game,” Wagner said. “When we stopped them at the 30-yard line, we were very happy.”
Wagner was particular pleased with Papazekos’s squib that pinned Navy at its own 12-yard line. The kickoff came after Jenkins connected with Jones for a nine-yard touchdown early in the fourth, giving Penn its first lead of the game at 21-17 with 14:56 left in the fourth.
In one of the best performances of his career, Jones racked up seven receptions for 80 yards to go along with the two touchdowns. The offense needed him to step up after senior wide receiver Aiden Kelly was knocked out of the game in the third quarter.
“It meant a lot that I could give my team everything I had in the biggest game of the season,” Jones said. “As a senior, as a captain, not being able to play against Navy anymore, I just wanted to go out and have the best game I could have. It turned out to be one of the best performances of my career. ”
In the absence of Kelly, Penn put Klaus and freshman wide receiver/tight end Alex Fruhbeis in the slot. Heading into the game, Kelly paced the Quakers with 23 receptions and 421 yards, but now it’s unclear if Penn will have Kelly this week against Mansfield or in the championship game against Army.
“It’s definitely going to be a big hit replacing a guy like Aiden. He’s been a great player since freshman year," Jones said of his teammate.
Nonetheless, the Quakers still had to finish out the rest of the game and could not use injuries as a crutch.
“We always try and preach next man up,” Jones said. “This injury kind of spoke volumes with that. With him being out, we also had other options in the passing game.”
Nursing a 21-17 lead with less than one quarter left to play, the Quakers needed to play mistake-free football if it wanted to finish off Navy.
They nearly did just that. After a 15-yard rushing touchdown by Klaus put Penn up 28-17 with 5:51 to go in the game, Navy fired back after quarterback Brayden Chmiel found wide receiver Austin Rodgers for a 39-yard touchdown with nine seconds left. After Navy's failed two-point conversion, freshman backup quarterback and defensive back Joshua Trybus recovered an onside kick, officially garnering Penn the inaugural title of South Division champions.
Despite the win and obvious cause for celebration, senior captain Quinn Karam had strong words about his team’s performance.
“Our special teams need to step it up. We are going to be in the film room working hard to figure out how we can fix it,” Karam said.
With that said, the team is still enjoying its victory.
“It’s always great to beat a service academy. The road to the championship always go through the service academies.” Jenkins said. “We’re excited now, eating pizza on the bus ride home.”
That excitement will turn to focus soon, as Mansfield looms before the Quakers meet with Army in hopes of a second consecutive championship.
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