Never has the old adage of football as a game of inches rung more true.
In the season finale for both teams, Penn fell to rival Princeton by the score of 28-7, but that point differential resulted not from a disparity in talent or ball control but rather from several key fourth down opportunities.
Throughout the contest, both the Quakers (5-5, 3-4 Ivy) and the Tigers (8-2, 5-2) were able to consistently drive the ball down the field. In fact, the Red and Blue, despite their relatively low point total, produced 446 yards of total offense, a figure that exceeded the output of each of Penn’s last three games, all of which were conference wins.
The separation between the two teams came on the all-important fourth down, where the Quakers converted on only one of six chances. Four of those opportunities came within the Princeton 15, with Penn electing to go for first downs rather than kick short field goals.
Whether it be a run or a pass, the Quakers simply could not penetrate Princeton’s fourth-down defense, and failures on such pivotal plays eventually resulted in Penn’s demise.
According to head coach Ray Priore, many of the those decisions to go for a first down resulted from being in "gray areas" where even a field goal would have been a difficult proposition. That being said, he understands that those types of risks will be put under a microscope and that Penn's inability to convert set them back in the game.
"In the first half especially, we got some momentum, and we got the ball down there," Priore said. "But we didn't capitalize on those opportunities, and we knew that was going to be difficult to overcome."
Despite these fourth-down frustrations, the season finale resulted in several positives for the Quakers, especially for the senior class.
Captain and star running back Karekin Brooks produced yet another strong offensive output, gaining 95 yards on the ground and adding 62 through the air. With that rushing total, Brooks eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark on the season, becoming just the 12th running back in Penn history to accomplish the feat and the first since 2006.
“It’s pretty special to get 1,000 yards in a season, but right now, I’m still pretty mad about the game," Brooks said. "But, I’m glad that I was able to do that, and I’m thankful for my teammates and for my coaches for believing in me.”
Fellow senior Nick Robinson also delivered a strong performance, passing for 354 yards and a touchdown. On Penn’s opening two drives, Robinson was especially prolific, executing several deep passes and throwing a strike to sophomore Rory Starkey for a seven-yard score that gave Penn its first and only lead at 7-0.
On the defensive side, the Quakers were led by their seniors as well. Captain Sam Philippi registered three tackles and a pass breakup, defensive back Tayte Doddy had seven tackles, and defensive lineman Prince Emili totaled seven tackles and three quarterback hits.
Undoubtedly, this senior class, winners of the 2016 Ivy League title, will be greatly missed, but the impact that they’ve had on this program will surely live on.
“I hope that we as seniors set an example for people to never give up no matter what it is," Philippi, who had battled back from a hip injury last year, said. "There wasn’t one moment where I felt that we weren’t a team. We stuck together through it all.”
But according to an emotional Philippi, this program has left an even greater mark on him and his fellow seniors.
“This program has given me everything," Philippi said. "I’m just really thankful for coach [Priore] and all of the coaches for believing in me and all of the guys. This is hard to walk away from. I’m so blessed to be able to go here and play for coach [Priore] and play next to guys like [Brooks], Nick [Robinson], Kolton Huber, all of those guys, and all of the guys on defense. It’s been a blessing for the past five years.”
Thanks to the foundation applied by Brooks, Philippi, and the rest of the seniors, that blessing is sure to continue for the next classes of Penn football.