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Senior running back Jonathan Mulatu attempts to catch a pass from sophomore quarterback Aidan Sayin during the game against Columbia at Franklin Field on Oct. 15. Credit: Anna Vazhaeparambil

On Saturday, Penn football wore its red uniforms for the first time all season, but the Quakers’ rhythm stayed the same.

To this point in the year, Penn (5-0, 2-0 Ivy) has been a team defined by its defense, and that remained true in its 34-14 waxing of Columbia (3-2, 0-2) at Franklin Field on Saturday afternoon. While the offense poured in another solid performance, it was the stop troops that spearheaded the winning effort, solidifying their place as one of the finest in the Ivy League.

Columbia junior quarterback Joe Green was hoping to see green lights as he led the Lions’ offense, but was met with nothing but Quaker red. Penn’s defensive line got into the backfield early and often, making life very difficult for Columbia’s signal-caller. Over his first four games, Green completed a whopping 72% of his passes, but was limited to just 24%, and struggled to find his rhythm after going the first two drives without a completion.

Big plays were the name of the game for Penn on the defensive end. In the second quarter, senior defensive lineman Micah Morris picked off Green and proceeded to rumble 30 yards into the end zone, trudging through white jerseys and stiff-arming would-be tacklers along the way. The play gave Penn a 10-0 advantage, and sparked an avalanche of Quaker success that ultimately buried Columbia.

The game was feast or famine for Penn senior defensive back Kendren Smith, but with enough of the former to ensure he left a sizable impact on the game. In the second quarter, Smith forced and recovered a fumble on Columbia’s 13 that set up a Penn touchdown. On the second play of the next drive, Columbia sophomore wide receiver Bryson Canty burned Smith for a 58-yard completion along the numbers, setting the Lions up in Penn territory. It was a threatening situation for the Quaker defense, but moments later, Smith atoned for his mistake in dramatic fashion.

On the next snap, Green looked for Canty again, this time in the end zone, but the pass never arrived. Smith undercut the route and came away with the interception, demonstrating the unflinching confidence that defines great cornerbacks.

“One thing we talk about is always having a short memory,” Smith said. “Playing defensive back, I think, is the hardest position because one bad play and you can get in trouble. But you always have to have a short memory because you always have the chance to make the next play.”

But Smith was not finished wreaking havoc on Canty and the Columbia offense. Toward the end of the third quarter, Canty took a short pass 45 yards and deep into Penn territory, but had the ball ripped away by Smith, who also recovered the ensuing fumble. It marked Smith’s third takeaway, completing a monster performance that was integral in the Penn victory.

With senior running back Trey Flowers — who marched for 149 yards and two touchdowns last week — in a walking boot (Priore was mum about his status postgame), Penn’s offense struggled at times. But through some help from the defense and some shanked first-half punts by Columbia, the unit put up a showing that was more than good enough to earn the victory. Junior receiver Josh Casilli was the motor that powered the passing attack. Casilli was able to utilize Texas routes on multiple key plays throughout the game’s early stages, including one that set Penn up for an opening-drive field goal, and another that converted a crucial third down.

“Any time you catch a few balls early, you’re going to feel confident — ready to go,” Casilli said. “I felt hot and they kept giving me the ball, and that was that.”

Casilli finished with 11 catches and 159 yards on the day. The biggest play of the day for the Quakers came in the late stages of the first half, when sophomore quarterback Aidan Sayin — who threw for 299 yards and three touchdowns — hit Casilli on a 42-yard strike up the middle for a touchdown that further fortified the Quaker advantage 24-0, which Penn carried into halftime. 

Credit: Anna Vazhaeparambil Junior wide receiver Joshua Casilli runs the ball down the field during the game against Columbia at Franklin Field on Oct. 15.

By the second half, the result of the game was a formality. The Quaker mascot rode along the track in his helmet-shaped vehicle, waving goodbye to the Columbia faithful as they prepared for the long journey home.

Columbia was coached by Al Bagnoli, who led Penn football for 23 years from 1992-2015. He is often regarded as the greatest coach in Penn football history, and won nine outright Ivy League titles during his time at the helm. The last time the Quakers were 5-0 (or even 3-0) was in 2003, when Bagnoli was still the head coach. This marks the seventh meeting between Bagnoli and his former associate head coach Ray Priore, with Saturday’s victory giving Penn the 4-3 advantage.

“Probably other than this week, he’s rooting for me [and] I’m rooting for him down the pike,” Priore said. “I learned a lot from coach [Bagnoli] in all aspects of the game. He’s been a great mentor [and] great leader from that perspective. I wouldn’t be sitting here if it wasn’t for him.”

Nearly a year ago today, Penn traveled to Columbia and fell to the Lions 23-14, part of a bleak 3-7 campaign that saw the group finish sixth in the Ivy League. But as the Quakers sit at 5-0, this season could not be more different. The Lions were the latest check mark in a Quaker revenge tour that has also included defeats of Lafayette and Dartmouth. 

As the season reaches its halfway point, Penn cannot afford to let its guard down. Not when there are so many crucial matchups yet to play, and so many scores yet to settle.