BOSTON — Football is a game of inches.
It’s a way overused cliché that has been stripped of pretty much all meaning, getting thrown around to describe any close game or nail-biting situation.
It also perfectly describes Penn football’s victory over Harvard on Saturday. That’s not because the game came down to a series of tightly-contested plays and split-second decisions — that’s true, but it’s also lazy and relatively uninformative analysis.
Instead, it’s because the Quakers — both young and old, but especially young — executed in those important situations time and time again, even when a relative lack of experience might have led one to expect otherwise.
Those significant plays began, however, with a crucial read from the most experienced of them all, fifth-year senior defensive back Sam Philippi, who was able to recover a muffed punt after it hit the helmet of a Penn blocker in the first quarter. Philippi then returned the ball inside Harvard territory, giving the Red and Blue possession and the field position they needed to score the first touchdown of the game.
After that, several sophomores stepped up in key moments for the Quakers. Defensive back Jason McCleod put up a sack, seven tackles, and two pass breakups to help anchor a strong all-around effort on that side of the ball.
On offense, wide receiver Ryan Cragun had a big gain on a catch-and-run in Harvard territory to set up a second quarter field goal to put Penn back in front after a strong start to the game. And after the Crimson took the lead heading into halftime, fellow wideout Rory Starkey Jr. got behind the defense for a 70-yard touchdown at the start of the second half.
In the fourth quarter, the margin for error for both teams became even thinner, and the Red and Blue were forced to step up even more to secure the victory. On a fourth and one with less than eight minutes remaining, Starkey just barely got his hands on a pass from senior quarterback Nick Robinson for a go-ahead touchdown.
When Harvard began to push for a game-winning touchdown, the Penn defense held strong, with more underclassmen playing a large role. Freshman defensive backs Jaden Key and Kendren Smith, along with senior Tayte Doddy, were able to get their hands on passes in the end zone to force a turnover on downs. Then, on the Crimson’s final possession, the Quakers stuffed a Harvard run on fourth and inches to ice the game.
When all of those high leverage plays fall in your direction, there are a couple different ways to look at the final outcome, and each has their own merits.
One viewpoint could be that for Penn to rise back to the top of the Ivy League and compete for titles in the near future, the team will need to not rely on those 50-50 plays nearly as much. The Quakers still made several key mistakes throughout the game, including an interception, a blocked punt, and two missed field goals, and eliminating those will be crucial in beating teams like Princeton — Penn's opponent next week.
A more positive way to read the situation is that Penn has now won three consecutive close games, and in each of those, underclassmen like Starkey and McCleod have come up big. Victories like these help build confidence and morale around the program as a whole, especially considering that many of the key players will be around for years to come.
At least for now, while riding a three-game win streak and holding an above-.500 record, it’s easy to take the latter view. For a team trying to build toward the future, that optimism is a very important thing.
MICHAEL LANDAU is a Wharton junior from Scarsdale, N.Y. and a Sports Editor for The Daily Pennsylvanian. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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