Well, it cannot get much worse than that.
After last week’s 45-17 rout of Brown, I think it’s safe to say that Penn was expected to beat an equally bad, if not worse, Cornell team. However, that was not the narrative on Saturday.
It was a tough homecoming weekend for the Red and Blue — tough for those on the field, and for those in the stands who had to endure potentially the worst loss of an already underwhelming and disappointing season to arguably the worst team in the Ivy League.
In a 15-12 loss to the Big Red, the Quakers could not find a way to generate effective offense against a Cornell defense that ranks in the bottom half of nearly every defensive statistical category in the Ancient Eight. Unable to move the ball downfield, the Red and Blue were incapable of scoring a single offensive touchdown against a team that is averaging 26.8 points allowed per game — Penn’s only touchdown came from a blocked punt.
Now that is bad.
And for a team that has been defined by the running game throughout the season, the Quakers’ usual ground attack that has averaged 143.1 rushing yards per game this year was nowhere to be found against a team allowing 128.1 rushing yards a game.
Yes, the running game was not as effective on Saturday as it has been all season, but Penn seemingly abandoned it entirely, despite only trailing by a maximum of seven points throughout the game. Instead of relying on veteran playmakers in running backs Isaiah Malcome and Trey Flowers, coach Ray Priore opted to pass the ball 45 times. Let me repeat that — the Ivy League’s worst passing offense threw the ball 45 times with its true freshman quarterback in his third career start.
Sure, if you just look at the box score, it does not seem too bad — Aidan Sayin completed 26 passes for 246 yards. However, I’ll give you some more context. The Quakers were playing without their two leading receivers in seniors Ryan Cragun and Rory Starkey, Jr. Most of Sayin’s completions were the result of wide receiver or running back screens or short slant routes — the freshman’s only deep attempt of the day was intercepted. And not to rub salt on the wound, but even after 45 attempts with 26 of them being completed, Penn still could not score a touchdown.
So why were the Red and Blue so committed to the passing game?
Maybe it was to give the true freshman quarterback some more game reps. Maybe it was because the run game was in fact ineffective. Or maybe coach Ray Priore knew something we did not. Regardless, the game was never out of reach for the Quakers, but they decided to stick with the passing game and desert the running game that has been an essential part of the Red and Blue's victories this season.
And despite all that passing, the Quakers were not even the least bit aggressive on offense, which became especially apparent in the fourth quarter as Penn was playing from behind. No, I am not even talking about taking shots passing the ball deep downfield — after all, there was a true freshman under center who had his two biggest weapons on the sideline. I am talking about the Red and Blue’s decisions on fourth downs.
Down 7-6 early in the third quarter, the Quakers punted on a fourth and 3 at midfield. Sure, that’s fine — there was plenty of game left, and the team could play the field position battle.
Then trailing 15-12 early in the fourth quarter, the Red and Blue faced a fourth and 5 at the Cornell 44-yard line. In perhaps a good opportunity to roll the dice and go for it on fourth down, Penn elected to punt the ball to an also struggling Big Red offense.
Still down 15-12 but now with a little over four minutes left in the game, the Quakers punted again on a fourth and 2 — yes, they were at their own 32-yard line, but come on. With the game potentially on the line, and not knowing if the offense would get the ball back again, the Red and Blue decided to punt on a 4th and two? What was there to lose at this point in the season?
Give your players a chance to play.
Despite the grim outlook thus far, there were definitely positive takeaways from Saturday’s game against Cornell. For the second week in a row, the defense played well. They did what they needed to be, albeit against a lackluster offense, holding the Big Red to 15 points. Additionally, in the absence of Cragun and Starkey, receivers Owen Goldsberry, Joshua Casilli, and Julien Stokes stepped up and all set career highs in receptions and receiving yards.
The Quakers’ game against Cornell may have been their last chance to win a game this season, as the team faces Harvard and Princeton to close out the season. At this point, Penn can only hope it does not end up at the bottom of the Ivy League standings come Nov. 20.
CHARLIE MA is a College senior from Nashville studying economics. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.