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10-9-2021-football-vs-lehigh-isaiah-malcome-sukhmani-kaur

Graduate running back Isaiah Malcome gets tackled by a Lehigh linebacker during a run at Franklin Field on Oct. 9.

Credit: Sukhmani Kaur

I left Penn football's first win at Franklin Field in 700 days feeling pessimistic about this Quaker team.

While this victory for the Red and Blue should be applauded, in many ways, the performance left me with more concerns than assurances moving forward into the final six games of Ivy League play.

Following a 20-0 shutout game featuring over 300 combined yards and one touchdown apiece from running backs Isaiah Malcome and Trey Flowers, one would think I would be excited about Penn football’s (2-2, 0-1 Ivy) remaining season. Yet, I am left feeling unconfident in Penn football, especially given its sloppy play against a weaker Lehigh opponent (0-6, 0-1) and the misleading box score that resulted. 

Against Ivy League competition this year, the Mountain Hawks have lost 32-0, 34-0, and now 20-0 — failing to score a touchdown across its six games so far this year — meaning Penn’s first shutout is a lot less meaningful than one might suppose. Lehigh also lost its starting quarterback Nigel Summerville in the first quarter.

Yes, the Quakers obliterated Lehigh upfront, paving the way for Malcome and Flowers to accumulate over 300 yards, holding Lehigh to a -0.1 yards per rushing attempt, and outgaining the Mountain Hawks 328 to -3 rushing yards. Malcome and Flowers were a dynamic attack, doing their best impersonation of the Browns’ Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt.

However, the eye test revealed conservative and error-ridden Penn play, whose poor play calling and decision making was evident throughout: Penalties mired the Red and Blue 11 times for 94 yards, loose ball handling led to three fumbles (two by Isaiah Malcome and one lost), and for the most part, deep shots on third and long came at predictable times and were easily foiled. 

For one, Penn was consistently bailed out by Lehigh’s own incompetence, as several dropped passes early in drives and missed throws on deep shots allowed the Red and Blue to exhale on defense a few times where Lehigh could have capitalized.

A home game against Lehigh — a non-conference Patriot League opponent — was supposed to get Penn football in rhythm to finish off its season with Ivy League play. Following a brutal 31-7 loss to Dartmouth in its home and conference opener, Penn desperately needed to prove its ability to move the ball fluidly on offense and its capacity to dominate teams through the defensive side of the ball. 

My hope for this game was a dissection of the Lehigh defense led by quarterback John Quinnelly and star wide receivers Ryan Cragun and Rory Starkey Jr. While it’s difficult to complain about a 300-yard rushing performance by Penn, I felt that the runs were not disguised well, missed tackles were more often the cause of big runs than play design, and ultimately the offense was predictable.

On the defensive side, I feel more assured, as the D-line has been dominant and bulldozed through the Lehigh front on several occasions to bust up runs in the backfield, and senior Mohammed Diakate — who recorded four tackles, one sack, and an interception — and junior Kendren Smith are strong pieces on either side of the field in the secondary. Routes were constantly being read and closed in on quickly; I would not be surprised at all to see more interceptions or even touchdowns from the secondary soon.

I know the defense can do its job against stronger opponents such as Yale and Brown in a few weeks, but it is on the offense to keep the defense off the field, maintain field possession with first downs, and score! 

Long-time Penn announcer Rich Kahn concluded his call of the first half by informing the crowd that the game was “with no score” at the break.

For a half that featured nine punts, two fumbles, and six Quaker penalties for 49 yards, Kahn’s call was right on point: It hardly seemed like two teams were waging battle on the football field.

The Red and Blue were finally able to begin to piece together a great drive with about five minutes remaining in the first half. From jet sweeps and half back dives to run-pass options and play-action deep shots, the Quakers’ fast-tempo offense controlled the line of scrimmage and easily maneuvered its way into Lehigh territory. This was beautiful.

Wide receiver Cragun contributed with a tight sideline snap to push the ball to Lehigh’s 11-yard line. Just as it seemed Penn was going to punch the ball in to secure a 7-0 lead going into half, the team fell apart.

Poor play calling and penalties forced Penn into a 32-yard field goal on 4th and 6 with less than a minute remaining. And then, kicker Daniel Karrash’s attempt ricocheted on the right upright and out, as a perfect encapsulation of the first half for the Red and Blue: so close yet so far.

It was quite easy to notice the difference between the first half and second half for the Quakers. Penn was invigorated and eager to finish off drives in Lehigh territory with points. 

After capping off solid drives fueled by the ground game with 39-yard and 40-yard field goals, Penn climbed to a 6-0 lead early in the fourth quarter, and at this point, needed a couple defensive stops to finish off Lehigh.

The defense did exactly that, allowing only one first down on each of Lehigh’s next two drives and handing the ball to the offense, following a sack and an interception, respectively. For all intents and purposes, the game was finished off by the defense, but the offense paid tribute to the defense’s performance with two great drives resulting in touchdowns.

The second half of the game, and especially the fourth quarter, was a joy to watch, as Lehigh’s offense could get nothing positive on consecutive plays, and Penn’s rushing attack tore through wimpy Lehigh tacklers. 

In the post-game press conference, both coach Ray Priore and Malcome acknowledged that this was an imperfect game; Malcolm in particular — who had 200 yards, one touchdown, and two fumbles —  stressed that no game can be perfect and always includes mistakes. Priore emphasized that this team must continue to work and get better week by week, and I agree.

This 20-0 shutout was not nearly as impressive as the final scoreline suggests, and conservative play calling, mental errors like penalties and turnovers, the strength of the opponent, Lehigh’s own errors, and a lack of a passing game today all contribute to this final diagnosis.

It was great to witness a Penn football victory at Franklin Field for the first time in a while, and all celebration is in order. 

But, tomorrow morning, preparation for former Penn coach Al Bagnoli and his Columbia team must come early. And the morning after that Columbia game, preparation for Yale must come early, too. 

The Quakers do not face an easy schedule down the stretch. My fear about this team is in its ability to rise to the occasion and mitigate its mistakes. I believe in its talent, its coaching, and especially its defensive prowess. 

I especially believe that this team should believe in itself, and luckily, they will have the chance to prove themselves in games against the likes of Yale, Princeton, or Harvard. We just need to see it to believe it. 

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