Different opponent, same dominant defense.
Even though Penn sprint football’s offense did not score as much as it did against Caldwell, the defense turned in another strong performance, holding Chestnut Hill to seven points in a 20-7 win on Friday night.
From the very beginning, the Quakers came out strong. The defense forced a three-and-out, and the offense scored on its first play of the game: a 64-yard pass from sophomore quarterback Eddie Jenkins to junior wide receiver Aidan Kelly. Sophomore kicker Theodoros Papazekos missed the extra point to keep the score at 6-0.
After that drive, though, the offense stagnated through most of the first half, but Penn's defense stepped up, blanking the Griffins (0-2) on the scoreboard. Penn (2-0) had particularly strong performances from freshmen defenders Matt Gorman and Connor Ashton, who each paced the Quakers with eight and six tackles, respectively.
As a team, Penn allowed a mere 53 yards on offense and three first downs in the first half.
Despite the solid first-half defensive performance, the offense's struggles kept Chestnut Hill in the game by missing out on opportunities to put points on the board. In particular, Penn had two trips to the red zone where it failed to score any points.
The first failed trip occurred with 4:27 left in the second quarter when Papazekos pushed a 21-yard field goal wide right. On its next drive, junior running back Jake Klaus fumbled the ball at the nine-yard line.
Between the missed extra point, field goal and fumble, the Quakers left up to 11 points on the table. Instead of a commanding 17-0 lead, the defending Collegiate Sprint Football League champions were in a one possession game and in danger of an upset.
“[The defense] had our backs all game,” Jenkins reflected. “It motivated us to play better because we wanted to return the favor for how well they had been playing to keep us in the game.”
Penn picked up its play at the start of the second half. On its first possession, Klaus redeemed himself by finding the end zone on a one-yard rush after a seven-play, 63-yard drive to give the Quakers a 13-0 lead.
Still, Chestnut Hill kept putting pressure on Penn after connecting on an 81-yard pass play to once again make it a one possession game.
Jenkins brought it back up to two possessions at the start of the fourth quarter by rushing for a 43-yard touchdown, pushing the score to 20-7. Even with a two possession lead, Penn still had to fend off a scrappy Chestnut Hill team that refused to go away.
After letting up the 81-yard touchdown, Penn’s defense got back on track and continued to give Chestnut Hill trouble. However, its signature play of the game came on fourth down with 2:52 left. Defensive coordinator John Amendt dialed up a blitz that sent Gorman off the edge. After initially missing the quarterback, junior defensive end Sam Smallzman, playing in his first game since tearing his ACL last year, pushed him back into the grasp of Gorman, who clinched the game with an 8-yard sack.
“As a defensive player, you dream of moments like that,” Gorman said.
Despite being a freshman, Gorman leads the Quakers in tackles this season and has been a key cog for a team that has yet to give up more than a touchdown in a single game.
Still, the big story of the game is the return of Smallzman. A 2015 second-team All-CSFL linebacker as a freshman, Smallzman tore his ACL against Cornell last year in the sixth game of the season. After working hard to rehab and get into game shape, Smallzman experienced a range of emotions in his first game back.
"When [I tore my ACL] again last year, I was just in disbelief," Smallzman said. "I honestly wasn't sure if I would be able to find the same motivation to bounce back this time. Ultimately, I have only two years left to play football and give everything I got before I can’t play anymore. To be honest being back last night for the first time last night, I barely thought about the injury. I was so excited to be back.”
After not starting the first half, Smallzman played most of the second half, replacing junior defensive end Cole Jacobson, who is also a senior sports reporter for the Daily Pennsylvanian.
Though Smallzman’s return inevitably means fewer reps for the other defensive ends, they do not mind, highlighting the unit's team-first attitude that has made them so formidable these first two weeks.
“If his return means fewer snaps for us but it benefits the defense as a unit, that’s a trade we’ll gladly take,” Jacobson said speaking on behalf of the entire defensive line.
All in all, this game revealed a lot about the Quakers. The offense, though littered with talent, did not meet its potential.
Jenkins led Penn up and down the field with relative ease but a red zone turnover, nine offensive penalties, and a missed field goal and extra point made it difficult for the Quakers to get out of their own way.
Still, coach Bill Wagner remains very upbeat about his offense's performance.
“Offensively, we are pretty pleased with what’s going on,” Wagner said. “We just got too many penalties.”
The defense is playing at a high level but it needs the offense to look more like it did against Caldwell if it hopes repeat as CSFL champions.
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