Penn football can breathe a sigh of relief after picking up its first Ivy League victory of the season against Brown on Saturday. The Quakers found themselves in a dog fight against the Bears and came away with a much-needed victory. Here are five takeaways from Saturday afternoon's action.
Penn finally generated a consistent pass-rush
One of the Quakers' most glaring weaknesses this season has been their lack of a consistent pass rush. Even with different blitz packages drawn up by defensive coordinator Bob Benson, the Quakers had only one sack in conference play heading into Saturday.
That changed against Brown when, for the first time this season, the Red and Blue pass rush was a strength. The Quakers sacked Brown quarterback EJ Perry eight times and had four quarterback hits, keeping the Boston College transfer on his back for nearly the entire game. Senior linebacker Hunter Hayes was especially effective, generating pressure to force an errant interception by Perry in the third quarter. On Brown's next drive, Hayes knocked the ball out of Perry's hands and Penn scored a defensive touchdown.
Penn was able to put consistent pressure on Perry while sending only three or four guys at a time, but there is a caveat to their success: It came against a Brown offensive line that has allowed a League-high 18 sacks this season in conference play. Regardless, it was encouraging to see the Red and Blue dominate at one of their weakest positions.
Ryan Cragun is the real deal
Anyone who has watched Penn football this season has seen Ryan Cragun's name pop up quite frequently in the box score. Cragun has put up monster numbers all season — he leads the Ivy League in receiving yards despite only having played five games so far — and has been Nick Robinson's go-to target in every game this season. The Quakers missed Cragun against Dartmouth, where no Penn receiver topped 43 yards receiving.
It appears that the rest of the Ivy League is taking notice. Brown double-teamed Cragun early on, forcing incompletions on Robinson's first three attempts to Cragun. But Cragun still found holes in the Bears' defense, and by halftime, he had nine catches for 120 yards and a touchdown.
Brown played better defense on Cragun in the second half, but he still made a huge 21-yard grab to set the Quakers up for a game-winning field goal. Part of Cragun's success can be attributed to his outstanding ball awareness and route running. He isn't the fastest receiver on the team, but the sophomore wideout is always in the right place at the right time.
Comparisons to Justin Watson are premature, but they're not unfounded. Cragun is putting up Watson-like receiving totals in his first year of action for the Red and Blue, and he'll surely continue to play a large role in the offense for the next two seasons.
The Quakers are missing Karekin Brooks
Karekin Brooks leads the Ivy League in rushing with 127 yards per game so far, but Brooks didn't play a single snap against the Bears after sitting out with an injury in the fourth quarter last week against Yale. Brooks might be back next week against Cornell, and his injury isn't believed to be serious. Nonetheless, it's certain that the Quakers are missing his offensive production and playmaking ability.
Filling in for Brooks was senior Abe Willows, who put up 63 yards rushing and two touchdowns last week against Yale. Willows struggled against the Bears, though; he averaged just 3.4 yards per touch on the afternoon as the lead back. Especially against a Brown defense that allows a League-worst 162 rushing yards per game, Willows' performance wasn't encouraging.
Penn still can't contain mobile quarterbacks
Penn's defense has been gashed by running quarterbacks this season. Dartmouth's Jared Gerbino, Columbia's Ty Lenhart, and Yale's Kurt Rawlings have each averaged over six yards per carry against the Quakers. Despite being under pressure all game, Brown's Perry still found ample room to run against the Red and Blue defense.
Perry ran for 170 yards — excluding sacks — and three touchdowns, highlighted by a 50-yard touchdown run where he weaved through the Penn defense and coasted into the end zone untouched. It's no secret that the Ivy League is full of running quarterbacks, and Penn's inability to stop mobile quarterbacks from picking up huge chunks of yardage has inhibited its ability to win conference games this season.
The Red and Blue are trending in the right direction
After their historically-bad loss to Columbia two weeks ago, it seemed like Penn football had hit rock bottom. But coach Ray Priore and the Quakers regrouped and put up their then-best performance of the season against Yale. Even though they lost to the Elis, their 41-point offensive showing was encouraging.
Despite getting off to a slow start against the Bears, Penn continued to improve, especially on the offensive side of the ball. Cragun and fellow sophomore Rory Starkey made some big catches, and Robinson bought the Quakers valuable time with his legs on Penn's game-winning drive.
None of this is to say that the Quakers don't have things to work on in preparation for their home matchup against Cornell next week. Brown has the worst defense in the Ivy League this year. The Red and Blue were out-gained, 477 to 304, by Brown, they committed eight costly penalties for 93 yards, and Robinson threw a costly interception in the fourth quarter. But getting their first Ivy win is a big step for the Quakers.
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