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Sophomore outside linebacker Brian O'Neill is having a breakout season, leading the team with 11 solo tackles in just two games.

Credit: Chase Sutton

There was one second remaining. One yard to go. And one heartbreak for Penn football in its 2017 Ivy League opener.

52 weeks ago at Franklin Field, the Quakers went toe-to-toe with Dartmouth, falling in devastating fashion by allowing a walk-off touchdown in a 16-13 loss.

This time around, the location is different, but the setting is almost the exact same. Entering Saturday afternoon’s contest at Dartmouth, both teams are 2-0 again, both are opening Ivy League play, and neither has forgotten last year one bit.

“It’s been a bad taste in our mouth for the whole past year,” senior offensive lineman and captain Tommy Dennis said. “We just wanna come out and play the best way we can and make up for last year.”

Despite graduating 10 All-Ivy selections, Dartmouth has fared well through its two games this year. After shutting out Georgetown in their season opener, the Big Green blew out a Holy Cross squad that upset defending Ivy champion Yale in Week 1.

“They’re a very, very sound team on defense, doing a great job of keeping things in front of you, and they’re big and strong up front,” coach Ray Priore said. “This week is a definite challenge, and we hope our kids can step up to it.”

Not only were Penn and Dartmouth extremely evenly matched a season ago, but if one looks deeper at each squad’s respective strengths, the two foes seem to be nearly carbon copies of one another.

Long gone are the days of star quarterbacks like 2017 Penn graduate Alek Torgersen and 2016 Dartmouth graduate Dalyn Williams slinging the rock. After last year’s contest involved zero turnovers, only 29 combined points, and neither team reaching 200 yards through the air, it’d be no surprise to see a reprise of that old school, ground-and-pound-style game. 

“Dartmouth is known for their smash-mouth football … and we’re gonna combat that with loading up in the box and meeting them at the line of scrimmage,” sophomore linebacker Brian O’Neill said. “It’s just gonna be a battle of who wants it more, and who can outlast the other when we’re exchanging blows at the line.”

If the numbers are any indication, both offenses will be in for the toughest test they’ve seen yet.

Both teams are averaging more than 200 yards per game on the ground, with running backs Karekin Brooks of Penn and Rashaad Cooper of Dartmouth each thriving behind veteran offensive lines.

But on the flip side, led by a powerful defensive front that recently held Holy Cross to a minuscule 13 rushing yards, Dartmouth has allowed a meager 1.2 yards per carry so far. Penn’s group, despite missing linebackers Connor Jangro and Jay Cammon Jr., has secured 17 sacks and limited opponents to a similarly low 1.5 yards per rush. 

Priore said the team is “hopeful” those two players will return in some capacity this week. But even without them, players like O’Neill have stepped up and kept the defense performing at an elite level.

“It’s definitely surprising when veteran players like Connor and Jay go down, but it’s just a ‘next man up’ mentality,” said O’Neill, who leads the team with 11 solo tackles. “We pride ourselves in stepping up in big moments.”

O’Neill and the rest of Penn’s defense will need to back those words up for the Quakers to stay unbeaten. Exactly one year after giving up 229 yards on the ground — when holding Dartmouth to 228 would’ve resulted in a win — Penn has a chance to get its Ivy season off on the right foot and earn its first 3-0 start since 2003.

And if all of that is accompanied by revenge for one of the most bitter losses in program history, the Red and Blue will make sure that Dartmouth spends just as much time thinking about this one.