PROVIDENCE, R.I. — On Saturday afternoon, Penn football had its biggest loss in the smallest state.
The Quakers were riding high after ripping off a Homecoming win against Yale, but for the first time all season, Penn (6-1, 3-1 Ivy) lost, falling 34-31 in a shootout at Brown (3-4, 1-3). The game was a tale of two halves for the Quakers, who trailed 24-7 after a season-worst first two quarters. In the second half, Penn regained momentum and outscored the Bears 24-10, but it wasn’t enough.
Penn’s inexperience against a pass-first offense was evident from the start, as Brown quarterback Jake Willcox led his offense methodically down the field on a 17-play, 86-yard touchdown drive to start the game. The attack stalled on Penn’s four-yard line when senior lineman Grant Ristoff found his way into the backfield for a would-be sack, but was called for a devastating facemask penalty.
This untimely facemask wouldn’t be the only penalty that set Penn back in the first half, with senior linebacker Jonathan Melvin committing a costly pass interference on a Brown fourth-and-12, which led to another Brown touchdown to make it 14-0.
"We want to go out there and be flawless on defense, no penalties," senior linebacker Garrett Morris, who finished with a game-high 15 tackles, said. "Anytime there is a penalty, maybe [there's a] lack of discipline, but our mantra is, 'next play.'"
That drive by the Bears was initially led by junior quarterback Jake Willcox — who prior to game time, led the Ivy League in passing yards — but at the start of the second quarter, senior Aidan Gilman stepped in, with Willcox out for the game with a finger injury.
Trailing 14-0, the momentum was not in Penn’s favor, but sophomore wide receiver Julien Stokes ran back the proceeding kickoff 97 yards to the house for Penn’s first special teams touchdown of the season.
Coming into the game, Penn was ranked second in the Ivy League in yards allowed and first in defensive passing efficiency, but against Brown’s backup quarterback, that didn’t look to be the case. The Bears notched another touchdown and a field goal with Gillman at the helm, and with the Quaker offense ineffective through the first half, the second quarter ended with Penn behind 24-7.
"When you're down 24-7 at halftime, most people pack in and run, and our kids didn’t," coach Ray Priore said.
If Penn’s defense was spooked by Brown's pass-heavy offense in the first, it seemed to have overcome its fears at the start of the second half. The defense regained its confidence, forcing a turnover on downs on Brown's first drive, leading to a Josh Casilli touchdown in the back of the end zone.
"Obviously, the first half didn’t go exactly the way the defense wanted it to," Morris said. "But I think that we got tremendous leaders on the defensive side of the ball that made sure everyone kept their head up.
"I have confidence the we’re the best defense not only in the Ivy League, [but] in the whole country, and I think everybody has that same confidence."
Penn’s pass rush continued to be dominant as the Quakers began to engineer a comeback. Senior defensive lineman Jake Heimlicher recorded two-and-a-half sacks across the entire game, and Penn finished the day with four total sacks and seven quarterback hits.
The Quaker defense dominated in the third quarter, holding Brown’s offense to just 28 yards and zero first downs.
Senior running back Trey Flowers, who led Penn’s offense in total yards and touchdowns heading into Saturday's contest, was ruled out again for the third straight game. In his place, Jonathan Mulatu once again stepped into the starting role, and the senior arguably had the best game of his college career. Trailing 24-17 in the third, Mulatu, who finished with a career-high 154 yards, broke through Brown’s defense for a 58-yard touchdown to knot the game up at 24 apiece.
“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 Quakers finished the third quarter with 17 unanswered points, swinging the momentum in favor of Penn in a big way.
Mulatu had trick or treated in the end zone already, but with Penn knocking on the door, the senior running back took it to the house once again. A penalty on a Brown punt gave Penn great field position, and six plays later, Mulatu ran it in 12 yards for his second score of the game. The touchdown made it 31-27, Penn’s first lead of the game after the Quakers had outscored Brown 24-3 since the halftime break.
On the ensuing drive, a stop would have all but sealed the game for Penn, but the Bears drove 69 yards on nine plays to regain the lead.
With 1:19 to play and two timeouts, sophomore quarterback Aidan Sayin and Penn’s offense faced arguably its biggest test of the season. As time ticked away, Penn committed yet another costly penalty on a deep ball to Casilli that was called back by a holding on the offensive line.
This time, it would prove to be fatal. An overturned Mulatu reception where he got hit hard by a Brown defensive back was the final nail in the coffin for Penn.
“I definitely should have caught that,” Mulatu said. “I felt it hit my hands. I definitely thought that was a penalty, but the refs thought otherwise.”
The Quakers came in as 10.5-point favorites, marking a huge upset for a Brown team that picked up its first Ivy win of the season.
“In our league, it is a playoff game every week,” coach Ray Priore said. “There’s not a team in this league that is not capable of beating somebody else.”
Penn football will look to right the ship next week at Cornell (4-3, 1-3) before facing Ivy heavyweights Harvard (5-2, 3-1) and Princeton (7-0, 4-0) to close out the season.