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Senior running back Jonathan Mulatu looks to run the ball down the field during the away game against Brown at Richard Gouse Field on Oct. 29. Credit: Michael Palacios

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Not enough went right for Penn football in its first loss of the season on Saturday at Brown, but one aspect that flourished was the run game, led by senior running back Jonathan Mulatu.

In the past three weeks, Mulatu has had to step up as the lead back for the Quakers, with senior starter Trey Flowers out with a lower body injury. In his first game as starter, the Springfield, Va. native carried the ball 19 times, and in the second, Mulatu amassed 80 total yards and the game-winning touchdown. On Saturday, though, he had what was easily the best game of his career.

Mulatu accounted for over half of Penn’s 368 yards of offense against Brown after running for a career-high 154 yards and two touchdowns, in addition to 32 yards receiving.

“I thought he trusted himself and was making full-speed decisions, ended up breaking some tackles and getting some really good looks, and the offensive line did a great job blocking for him,” running backs coach David Sims said.

In particular, Mulatu had his biggest play of the day late in the third quarter with the Quakers trailing by seven. Lined up in the shotgun, sophomore quarterback Aidan Sayin handed the ball off to Mulatu, who quickly found a gap just to the right of the offensive line, charged through two Brown defenders, and was off to the races for a Penn touchdown.

“I saw a light box,” Mulatu said. “We were in a zone play, and I saw a crease and I saw two defenders, so I just tried to split them.”

The run worked thanks to Mulatu’s instant read of the defense and immediate subsequent decision, something he and Sims had worked extensively on improving throughout the summer and as of late.

“Oftentimes, I think too much when I play, and he’s [Sims] been trying to help me think less and trust my reads,” Mulatu said.

Mulatu's “mental game” as a whole is an area he’s keyed in on his training, with his confidence and making speedy reads being at the forefront. Sims noted that Mulatu's mental growth was the biggest change in his game from this season to last, and resulted in his usage increase even with Flowers in the lineup. 

“Trey’s definitely good with the mental role, and he’s been helping me gain confidence, and that’s really the biggest thing: helping me trust the blocks,” Mulatu said.

Behind Flowers on the depth chart, Mulatu had primarily served as a change-of-pace back this season, accounting for at least eight carries in three of Penn’s first four games. After spending time in the starting role and having some success, though, it wouldn’t be a stretch to expect Mulatu’s usage to increase from what it was early on in the season.

“That’s something we’ll have to cross once we get there, but for right now, the best teams have more than one back,” Sims said. “And if you have two good backs, then you’re very fortunate … If we get Trey back, which would be a big boost to the offense, Jonny’s role and his mindset shouldn’t change.

“He needs to still think that he’s the guy and go out and execute and show everybody that he can still do it.”

Following Saturday’s career-best outing, the confidence to go out and “think that he’s the guy” might not be too big an ask.