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With the set of rules agreed to by the Ivy League's eight football coaches, Penn football will no longer allow tackling during in-season practices.

Credit: Ilana Wurman , Ilana Wurman, Ilana Wurman

This is the Penn football we’re accustomed to seeing.

In 2014, the Red and Blue featured one of the worst defenses in the Ivy League, surrendering nearly 32 points per game while failing to stifle opponents in the passing game. Entering this season, it was clear to coaches and players alike that any sort of resurgence in the Ancient Eight standings could only come with increasingly staunch defensive play.

A program accustomed to winning games by playing tougher than its foes, the Quakers ranked near the bottom of the conference in most relevant statistics last year, finishing tied for sixth in interceptions and points per game, while notching the second-fewest sacks. Like perennial losers Cornell and Columbia, Penn became the team quarterbacks like Yale’s Morgan Roberts and Dartmouth’s Dalyn Williams eviscerated.

That has all changed in 2015.

After giving up 42 points in a season-opening loss to Lehigh, the Red and Blue have buckled down in five games since. While Penn is still allowing the sixth-most points in the conference, it’s the manner in which it has created turnovers at opportune times that has helped it move over .500 in Ivy play for the first time in nearly two years.

"[Defensive coordinator] Bob Benson came in with a very similar scheme to what we played in the past and hit the refresh button,” head coach Ray Priore said. “We’re playing with confidence. We’ve broken it down and gotten back to the basics — something that’s been our theme this year — while taking care of the little things.”

No Red and Blue defender is playing with more confidence than senior captain and linebacker Tyler Drake. A 2014 All-Ivy honorable mention, the veteran has been otherworldly this season: Drake leads the team with 50 tackles, 6.5 sacks, three forced fumbles and two interceptions.

It’s been impossible for his teammates and coaches not to notice.

“When your hardest workers are your really good players, that’s a really good thing,” Priore said. “You’ve seen that rebirth and re-energization on that side on the ball thanks to a lot of the plays that Tyler has made.”

“I’d like to think that my leadership style is ‘lead by example’, because you can’t have a ‘do as I say not as I do’ attitude and expect to see results,” Drake added. “It’s on our whole senior class and even other upperclassmen to show the freshmen how to do things, and we’re seeing success with it.”

Despite Drake’s herculean efforts of late — he had a sack, forced fumble and interception in Penn’s 34-20 win over Yale on Friday — he hasn’t been alone. After all, it’s hard to tell where the Quakers would be without their “young pups,” a term Priore affectionately uses to describe the several younger players with large roles on defense.

Rookie defensive back Sam Philippi is fifth on the team in tackles. Fellow freshman Mason Williams has delivered a handful of hard hits in the secondary. And sophomore Colton Moskal, who transferred from Syracuse in the offseason, is averaging 6.8 tackles per game, the third-most on the team.

“We don’t really know what it’s like playing at this level,” Williams said about his fellow freshmen. “We’re getting a little taste of it now, and as we progress in our careers, we’ll get more comfortable. It’s a different speed, a different level, a different strength. We had to up our game to help our defense get stops.”

Combined, the team’s experienced and younger players have managed to form a unit that leads the Ivy League in sacks and forced fumbles and is tied for second in picks. The Quakers showed off all of their strengths against the Bulldogs last weekend, picking off four passes, including two in the end zone, while holding Yale to 10 points after the first quarter.

After 21-point losses to Lehigh and Dartmouth in two of their first three games, it didn’t seem like the Red and Blue would be able to reach this point. Then the Fordham game happened.

With the Quakers trailing by 25 near the end of the first half on Oct. 10, their defense resiliently stood tall in the third and fourth quarters, allowing only 13 points after halftime to the No. 13 Rams as Penn fought to come back.

“That was a time when our kids began playing with confidence, and since then we’ve played incredibly well,” Priore said.

“Since then, our defense has been able to have great cohesion and been able to play really well,” Williams noted. “I think our attitude is really positive.”

So while there’s room for debate as to whether the Quakers as a whole are back, the squad’s defense has done all it can to keep the team in the Ivy title race. Be it a rookie or a veteran, each player’s efforts have allowed Penn to truly stifle its opponents by doing the little things right.

After all, as Priore noted, “It’s nice to see that balance between the ages and know everybody is buying in.”

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