On a sunny Saturday afternoon, in front of a sparse Franklin Field crowd, it was a tale of two halves for the Quakers as they opened up their 2022 season against Colgate.
Down 11 at halftime, following two quarters in which Penn (1-0) could only muster three total points, the Red and Blue emerged out of the tunnel seemingly a new team. The defense was tighter, the offense drove the ball up and down the field, and the coaching staff opened up the playbook more for sophomore quarterback Aidan Sayin to take advantage of. As the momentum shifted in Penn's favor, the Raiders had no answer, leading to 22 unanswered points and the Quakers emerging victorious, 25-14.
"It's a sign of maturity," head coach Ray Priore said about his team's second-half play. "Last year, I was echoing how many new faces we had on the football field. The nice part of it is that they really grew up, they're a lot more mature, so they were really relaxed."
Right out the gate, Penn's prospects didn't look promising, as Sayin was picked off on just his third pass attempt of the season. Though he managed some impressive throws on later drives, the sophomore threw another interception on a costly overthrow meant for senior wide receiver Rory Starkey, Jr.
Another major theme of the game was whether the Raiders (1-2) could easily establish their potent rushing attack against a Quakers defense, which ranked sixth in the Ivy League in rushing yards allowed last season. On their first two possessions in the quarter, the Raiders relied on their run game, but both drives stalled out around midfield, and Colgate finished the half with just 38 rushing yards.
"At halftime I simply said to the guys that they didn't do anything, you allowed them everything they [had on the scoreboard]," Priore said. "Let's go settle in and relax. [The] seniors took control of the locker room, it was really not a sense of panic at all."
Once the third quarter hit, the game essentially became a cycle for the Quakers: offense scores a touchdown, the defense forces a three-and-out, and repeat. After receiving the second-half kickoff, the Quakers drove 75 yards in 13 plays to score a touchdown on a one-yard pass from Sayin to Starkey. The turning point on that drive, and arguably in the whole game, was a late hit penalty by Raider linebacker J.C. Gaughan on a slide by Sayin on a third-and-16, giving the Quakers a new opportunity, which they happily cashed in on.
Following another three-and-out for the defense, the offense picked up where they left off, as Sayin tossed a picturesque deep ball to junior wideout Sterling Stokes on the sideline for a 30-yard gain, and senior running back Trey Flowers muscled into the end zone to give the Quakers a 15-14 lead. (Sayin’s pass on the two-point attempt fell incomplete.)
Two drives later, Penn took full command of the game, finishing an eight-play drive with a 10-yard touchdown by senior running back Jonathan Mulatu off another Sayin throw to bring the score to 22-14 in Penn's favor.
“Second half, I didn’t think I needed to change my mindset,” Sayin said. “In the first half, the two picks were mistakes by me, and I just needed to lock back in. We knew we could put up points, we were still putting up yards in the first half, so we just had to convert and put the ball in the end zone in the second half, which we did.”
Sayin finished with 289 yards — a new career high — two touchdowns, and two interceptions in arguably the best game of his career. Over the course of 44 throws, the sophomore quarterback threw to an impressive 11 different receivers. Junior wideout Josh Casilli, in particular, had a standout day, hauling in 10 catches for 60 total yards.
On the defensive side of the ball, senior linebacker Jonathan Melvin shined with five tackles and a team-high 2.5 tackles for loss. Senior defensive back Kendren Smith also had a big day with six tackles, especially considering the contest was his first game back after missing most of last season to injury.
Penn will look to repeat its opening-game success next week when it faces Lafayette (1-1) on Saturday at Franklin Field.