Last week’s 34-31 back-and-forth slugfest between Penn and Brown was objectively more exciting than the Quakers' relatively routine matchup against Cornell on Saturday. But you won’t hear them complaining about it.
After suffering its first loss of the season at Brown last weekend, Penn football traveled to Ithaca, N.Y. to face the Big Red in the hopes of bouncing back. And once the Quakers jumped out to a 28-7 lead by the middle of the third quarter, they did just that, cruising to a 28-21 victory that was rarely in doubt through the second half.
"We had opportunities and plays to make last week, and we didn't make them," coach Ray Priore said. "Those same opportunities and plays today, we made. And that was really the difference. So many times you worry about your opponents as opposed to worrying about yourself and our kids. We're very focused, and they did a great job today."
Giving the Red and Blue a huge boost was senior running back Trey Flowers, who returned to the lineup after remaining injured for three straight weeks, and tallied 124 yards on 26 carries, including two touchdowns in the first half.
The Miami native was sidelined with a plantar plate injury that didn't allow him to push off his left foot. Initially, the training staff thought the injury would be season-ending, but after three weeks of rehab, therapy, and plenty of tape, Flowers had the chance to reassume his starting duties on Saturday.
"I was down for a little bit, but you just got to have faith; put your faith in God, put your faith in our training stuff, and I was able to come back three games early," he said.
As a senior, the decision to return means the end of this season will be Flowers' final stretch as a Quaker, when he could in theory have returned next season.
Though many may have taken the opportunity to potentially play 10 more games, for Flowers, the decision came down to one crucial factor.
"It was between coming back next year and now, but I told coach if I get a chance to play three [games], I'd do it," he said. "Whatever helps the team win, that's what I'm about."
Defensively, Penn (7-1, 4-1 Ivy) returned to form after an abnormally porous performance at Brown last week, where the Quakers gave up a whopping 429 yards. Cornell (4-4, 1-4) only began to gain some rhythm offensively midway through the third quarter, when Penn held a commanding three-score lead.
"You can have one off weekend and right the wrongs, and I'm proud of us and proud of the team for the way we bounced back from last week," junior defensive lineman Joey Slackman, who finished with eight tackles and a sack, said. "I think the mindset going into this week was just do our job and make plays when they come to us, not get ahead of ourselves, and take it one play at a time."
The strong showing arose in large part thanks to a dominant presence in the ground game. Despite attempting nine more rushes than the Quakers, the Big Red finished with one less rushing yard than Penn.
Cornell’s aerial attack couldn’t find much momentum either, as Big Red sophomore quarterback Jameson Wang was continually flushed outside the pocket by Penn’s defensive line and left without viable receiving options. Wang finished 20-45 and was also picked off twice, once by senior linebacker Garrett Morris and once by junior defensive back Shiloh Means.
Slackman and Priore both credited Penn's past experience against dual-threat quarterbacks in containing Wang, who rushed 25 times on Saturday.
Wang's counterpart — sophomore quarterback Aidan Sayin — meanwhile, completed a season-low eight passes (his next-lowest was 21) on a season-low 18 attempts, but made a couple well-timed deep balls in the first half.
On a second down from Penn’s own 24-yard line in the first quarter, Cornell jumped offsides, which prompted Sayin to take a shot, dropping a perfect floater along the left sideline to sophomore wideout Julien Stokes for a 28-yard gain.
Just two plays later, the sophomore signal-caller found another Stokes (unrelated) for a big play. Sayin looked to the sidelines for a play call, but the snap came unexpectedly — catching Cornell’s defense by surprise — and junior wide receiver Sterling Stokes raced past two Big Red defenders to snag a 47-yard bomb for the first score of the game by either team.
Sayin almost cost the Quakers with an untimely interception in Penn territory with less than seven minutes to play, but Penn’s defense held firm, forcing a quick four-and-out that all but sealed the game for the Red and Blue.
The Quakers jump to 7-1 with the victory, as they head into the last two games of the season against Harvard and at Princeton, respectively. With wins in both, Penn would secure at least a share of the Ivy League title, but Princeton looms large, as the Tigers have yet to lose a game this season, or even win by fewer than double-digits.
"We're in a week-by-week mindset and taking things one step at a time," Slackman said. "Everybody's tired. Everybody's sore. Everybody's mentally exhausted. But it's about how we can get up for each week and attack each day. So, I'm proud of us, and I'm excited for the next two weeks."