Saturday afternoon provided Penn football with a unique opportunity to spoil rival Princeton’s bid for an Ivy League title.
Instead, the Tigers (9-1, 6-1 Ivy) were the ones who spoiled the Quakers’ Senior Day, delivering a 34-14 beatdown of the Red and Blue (3-7, 1-6) to clinch a co-Ivy League title with Dartmouth.
By halftime, the score was 31-7. It was clear that the game was out of reach for Penn, as an ineffective Quaker offense provided more chances for Princeton’s offense to score than it did for itself. The Ivy League’s leading scoring team capitalized on numerous turnovers and short fields in the first half to stifle Penn.
The Red and Blue did provide some fight early in the first half. A wild snap on the first play from scrimmage flew over Princeton quarterback Cole Smith’s head, and Penn’s defense was able to force a quick three-and-out after the error.
On its own 40-yard line, Penn faced a fourth and one, but opted to punt to Princeton instead. The Tigers, who got off to a slow start on offense, ended its second possession with a short field goal, after senior cornerback Mohammed Diakite broke up a pass deep in the end zone on third and goal.
On its second drive, Penn came out firing, as freshman quarterback Aidan Sayin completed a seam route up the middle, followed by another quick throw for consecutive first downs. On a third and five deep in Princeton territory, Sayin pitched the ball to graduate running back Isaiah Malcome, who scampered to the right sideline for a first down.
After freshman Maurcus McDaniel took a couple snaps at quarterback, Sayin returned for a crucial third and goal and lofted a pass to senior wide receiver Rory Starkey Jr. for a wide-open touchdown. Penn claimed a 7-3 lead but would have little else to celebrate the rest of the half.
The Quakers’ next offensive drives resulted in two punts, two interceptions, and no points, including two strip sacks that were both recorded by Penn’s offensive linemen. Offensive woes persisted throughout the game, as Princeton forced several hurries and sacked Sayin five times — led by defensive lineman Sam Wright, who had three of the five.
The tide of the game turned when Sayin threw an ill-advised balloon to the far side of the field, which was easily picked off by senior Matthew Winston, who then pranced into the end zone.
After stopping Penn yet again, the Tigers’ next drive was punctuated by a double-reverse trick play, which saw wide receiver Dylan Classi throw an 18-yard touchdown pass. In the second quarter, Princeton effortlessly moved the ball against Penn’s defense, primarily as Smith picked apart the Quakers’ zone defense with chunk passes near the sideline.
Penn’s only other opportunity to score in the first half was a gift from Princeton, as a muffed punt set up the Quakers inside the Tigers’ red zone. Rather than giving itself any hope for the second half, Penn’s one-dimensional play-calling paved the way for Princeton’s defensive backs to make easy tackles, keeping the halftime score at 31-7.
With the game decided at halftime — 99.3% win probability for Princeton — the second half followed similar trends. An inconsistent Penn offense struggled to piece together drives, despite the occasional chunk run from Malcome or senior halfback Trey Flowers.
As a whole, the game slowed down — there were only four drives in the third quarter. Commentator Coffee Jones noted that Penn’s run game was rendered somewhat useless by Princeton’s huge lead.
The Quakers' defense was also able to slow down Princeton. The Tigers’ first drive was stymied by senior linebacker Jake Heimlicher's tackle and sack. On its next drive, Princeton showcased a variety of offensive packages, dialing up quarterback dares, reverses, play-actions, and slowly moving the ball deeper into Penn territory.
However, defensive back Jason McCleod prevented a Princeton touchdown with a pass breakup in the end zone in one-on-one coverage. Another Red and Blue goal line stop forced a Princeton field goal to increase the lead to 34-7.
Penn’s offense responded with an aggressive and efficient drive. A dump-off on fourth and five in Princeton territory was converted to keep the drive alive, before a great play design set Flowers up for an untouched score to the left pylon. But it was clearly too late and too little.
Despite the disappointing result, the Red and Blue still celebrated its seniors and their Penn careers.
“They gave everything they had. They were great leaders going through this pandemic and everything that was going on. They were leading the team off the field and leading by example,” coach Ray Priore said. “These kids never quit one game this year — they fought hard — and that’s all about leadership. I have only great things to say about every single one of those young men.”
After senior wide receiver Ryan Cragun surpassed 1,000 career receiving yards earlier this season, his counterpart Starkey also reached that mark, becoming the 21st and 22nd players in program history to do so. Starkey finished the game with four catches, 68 yards, and a touchdown. Whether either of these players, who are both listed as seniors, will suit up for the Quakers again remains to be seen.
McCleod capped off an impressive campaign this season today by adding a couple more pass breakups to his already Ivy League-leading marks. The defensive back is also tied for second-most interceptions in the Ivy League with three.
Though Penn was not able to utilize its backfield as much as it may have wanted this game, Flowers and Malcome dominated for Penn this season. Malcome rushed for 201 yards against Lehigh, which is the most in the Ivy League this year, and the nifty back averaged over five yards per carry.
“Some of them, we’re looking at possibilities of coming back for another year, so they may not be gone yet,” Priore said.
Penn’s Senior Day may have been more disappointing than the Quakers would have hoped, but regardless, the Red and Blue will honor a tremendous class of talent and reflect on the careers of its seniors.
“We were a very, very young team in some regards — we have a lot of young players. We went to the Bucknell game to lead-off and two-thirds of our team were first-time travelers — never been on a football field before,” Priore said. “We are lucky that those two-thirds kids now come back, so I’m optimistic to see some of the kids that have played already … moving on.”