This season might be a disappointment to both teams thus far, but the rivalry hasn’t lost any intensity.
Penn football will host Princeton on Saturday as it clings to its slim Ivy League title hopes. While the Quakers (3-4, 1-3 Ivy) claimed their first Ivy win in Providence, R.I. against Brown last weekend, they do not control their destiny. They currently rank seventh behind three 3-1 teams and three 2-2 teams, including Princeton (5-2, 2-2).
All three of Penn’s Ancient Eight losses saw the Red and Blue lose the lead in the last five minutes, with the losses to Dartmouth and Columbia coming on the very last play. For coach Ray Priore to get his third Ivy title in his first three years — he’s only the second Ivy coach to win in his first two years — quite a few games will need to break in Penn’s favor. Those include the last-place Brown Bears (2-5, 0-4) taking down first place Yale and Columbia.
One of the prevalent storylines this year for the Quakers has been the quarterback position. Seven games into the season, it is unclear whether senior Will Fischer-Colbrie or sophomore Nick Robinson is better equipped to start under center. The former had started each of the first six games before sitting out against Brown due to injury, and could play this weekend.
Before making his first start last weekend, Robinson had appeared in four other games for Penn. However, Priore said Robinson sustained an injury in the third quarter of the Brown game and is not 100%. Robinson has completed 43 of 66 passes for 529 yards and 6 touchdowns to 1 interception, compared to 76 of 124 for 988 yards and 9 touchdowns to 5 interceptions for Fischer-Colbrie.
Junior offensive lineman Tommy Dennis said that the competition between the two quarterbacks has pushed each to improve this season.
“Whoever has a more consistent week of practice, that’s who we’re going to lean on,” Dennis said. “I think we’re confident either one is in the backfield, they’re going to make the right reads and get the job done.”
The Penn defense shined again in the Brown victory and has allowed the third-fewest points in Ivy League play. Bears quarterback Nick Duncan was held to 13 of 25 passing for 89 yards, and running back David Moodie managed just 47 yards on 13 attempts. For the season, junior linebacker Nick Miller easily leads the unit in tackles with 72, and 10 players have recorded a sack for the Quaker defense that has forced 12 takeaways.
Freshman running back Abe Willows got an extended look in the second half against the Bears, finishing with 59 yards on 10 attempts. Priore said this was not a case of Willows leaping ahead of senior Tre Solomon and sophomore Karekin Brooks on the depth chart, and was due in part to field conditions.
“Brown’s track is a little different. It’s a grass game and it was muddy and slippery,” Priore said. "When Abe got on the field, he was able to put his foot on the ground and really create positive yardage. It was a nice second-half spark.”
Penn was content to grind it after senior wide receiver and captain Justin Watson scored two touchdowns in the first quarter. Watson set three school records on Saturday: most touchdown receptions with 29, most receiving yards with 3,413 and consecutive games with a touchdown reception with seven — he can tie the Ivy League record this week. His season totals now stand at 719 yards and 10 touchdowns.
In last year’s Penn-Princeton matchup, the Tigers shut out the Quakers, 28-0, in Princeton, N.J. The defeat was Penn’s first and only Ivy loss of the season, as they rebounded the next week to beat Harvard, 27-14, in a Friday night thriller at Franklin Field to force a three-way Ivy League title.
While Princeton’s offense again features quarterback Chad Kanoff, who has completed 192 of 256 attempts for 2,255 yards, 19 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions, it will be missing perhaps its most dangerous weapon in quarterback/running back/wide receiver Jon Lovett. The 2016 Ivy League Offensive Player of the Year, Lovett threw for 582 yards and 10 touchdowns, ran for 411 yards and 20 touchdowns and added 235 receiving yards and a receiving touchdown. Lovett has missed the entire 2017 season after undergoing offseason surgery.
Senior defensive lineman and captain Louis Vecchio says that Lovett’s absence has a limited effect on the Quakers’ defensive gameplan.
“They still do the same thing,” Vecchio said. “We just have to be prepared to stop the play itself.”
The Tigers’ offense has remained dangerous without Lovett, particularly in the passing game with its two 6-4 wide receivers, Jesper Horsted and Stephen Carlson. They have combined for 1,465 receiving yards and 16 touchdowns as they have established themselves as Kanoff’s favorite targets.
Priore said the Quakers aim to slow down the pace of the game.
“You have to … keep it out of their hands, control the ball and shorten the game,” Priore said.
Kickoff is at 1:00 pm on Saturday at Franklin Field. Next week, the Quakers trek to Harvard before closing at home against Cornell.