Through five games, it still felt like Penn football hadn’t faced its biggest test yet.
Three non-conference contests proved the Quakers could handle less capable competition, and Ivy wins against Dartmouth and Columbia were impressive, but both teams clearly are operating at several notches below where they were last season.
Against Yale on Saturday, a group that came in 4-1 and undefeated in the Ivy League, Penn had its tallest task of the season, and in a tight 20-13 win, the Quakers played the way they have all season and showed a season-high crowd of 11,972 (mostly alumni) exactly what this team is.
Penn’s defense is the unit that carries this team, and during Saturday’s Homecoming contest, that tune stayed much the same. Only three Bulldogs caught passes for Yale — a season low — and outside of two deep bombs of 38 and 41 yards apiece, southpaw dual-threat quarterback Nolan Grooms threw for a putrid 46 yards. Yet again, the Quakers' defensive backs did not allow much separation for the opposing receivers, while Penn’s defensive line forced Grooms to often get the ball out much quicker than he’d like.
Excluding the two deep balls, Grooms actually ran for more yards than he threw, hitting the ground 12 times for 47 yards. As with the passing game, Penn’s defensive front was boom or bust with mostly boom, preventing anything big outside of a 47-yard touchdown carry by Joshua Pitsenberger, which marked Yale’s only trip to the end zone of the game.
But while the Quaker defense was dominant as it has been all season, Penn’s offense did just enough to get the win. This is not the Ivy-worst offense of last season, but it’s an attack that is in large part saved by a shutdown defense.
Without senior running back Trey Flowers for the second straight week, Penn relied on sophomore quarterback Aidan Sayin to deliver over the air, outnumbering its 18 rushes with 45 passing attempts. Like throughout the first half of the season, Sayin and offensive coordinator Dan Swanstrom again favored shorter, more manageable throws, employing a variety of screens and other tight routes.
As has been noted before, under Swanstrom’s new offensive scheme, the offense is targeting a greater variety of receivers, with Sayin even catching a ball on a Philly Special-esque trick play during the second half in which junior defensive back Maurcus McDaniel — who stepped in at quarterback on several occasions last season — lobbed a pass down the field to an unsuspecting Yale defense.
Here’s a crazy stat: With three-fifths of the season completed, seven Penn players have at least 100 receiving yards. Across the entirety of last season? Only five. Postgame Saturday, coach Ray Priore lauded the depth and the talent of Penn’s receiving corps, and Swanstrom and Sayin are finally making use of it and seeing results.
But again, Penn didn’t blow Yale’s defense out of the water. If not for an opportune Jake Heimlicher interception at the end of the second quarter, Penn would’ve entered halftime with just three points. The offense got it done when it counted, though, putting together a 10-play, nearly five-minute drive for a Jonathan Mulatu touchdown to ice the game with 24 seconds left. This is a team defined by a superb defense and an offense that does just enough.
Will that work against Harvard and Princeton? Maybe. Upcoming, Penn has two road games it’ll be heavily favored to win against Brown and Cornell, and — assuming the Quakers take care of business — their Ivy title hopes will likely come down to a last-week matchup at Princeton, following a Parents Weekend bout with Harvard.
We know what this team is. The question now is whether or not it’ll suffice as the stakes continue to be raised.
MATTHEW FRANK is a Senior Sports Editor for The Daily Pennsylvanian and is a College junior from Miami studying English. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.