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The football team captains walk into the stadium at the beginning of the game against Columbia at Franklin Field on Oct. 15. Credit: Anna Vazhaeparambil

In its final bout of the season, Penn football (7-2, 4-2 Ivy) heads to Princeton (8-1, 5-1) this Saturday with the goal of showing that the Quakers can overcome the odds one last time. 

After losses in two of their last three games against Ancient Eight rivals Brown (3-6, 1-5) and Harvard (6-3, 4-2), the Quakers find themselves in a tough situation where they must beat Princeton and count on Harvard defeating Yale (7-2, 5-1) to clinch a four-way Ivy League championship. This would be the first-ever four-way tie for the top spot in the conference’s 66 seasons of play. 

Standing in the way of the Red and Blue is a formidable Tiger defense that has held challengers to just 223.9 passing yards and 100.2 rushing yards per game. At its helm is junior linebacker Liam Johnson, whose agility and explosiveness led to an 89-yard interception return for a touchdown against Cornell. 

Similar to the Quakers, the Tigers' wins can be attributed to holding opponents to meager scores of 12.78 points per game, transforming average offensive showings into blowout victories. 

Looking back on Penn’s 14-point offensive showing against Harvard, sophomore quarterback Aidan Sayin hopes to see his squad not have a repeat performance against Princeton's stout defensive unit. 

“The overall execution must be better,” he said. “We as a unit have much more to give on the offensive front, so we should be better.” 

The million-dollar question is whether the Tigers will face the Quaker offense that bulldozed over Georgetown and Columbia and withstood close matchups against Dartmouth and Yale, or the unit that failed to generate any momentum against Harvard. 

“Our offense has to play against one of the best defenses in the league every day in practice,” coach Ray Priore said. “We will find weaknesses in [Princeton’s] structure and attack those weaknesses.” 

Priore understands that a strong defense fronts no new challenge for the Quakers and is confident in his offensive line’s ability to make monumental plays in deciding moments. Tide-turning plays haven’t been a scarce commodity for the Quakers, between senior running back Jonathan Mulatu’s huge 58-yard touchdown at Brown and Sayin's 47-yard deep ball to junior wide receiver Sterling Stokes for a touchdown at Cornell. 

On the other end of the field, the Red and Blue’s top-tier defense will face its biggest test of the season against one of the conference’s most dominant duos: junior quarterback Blake Stenstrom and senior wide receiver Andrei Iosivas. Stenstrom leads Ivy League quarterbacks in several categories, including 2,490 passing yards on the season and a highly reliable pass conversion rate of 69%. Iosivas is seasoned at defusing long bombs and leads the Ancient Eight with 912 receiving yards on the season and 7.1 receptions per game.

Priore emphasizes the need for the Quakers to have a strong pass rush against the Tigers in stopping the duo. Leading the conference with 31 sacks on the season, the Red and Blue hope to utilize their commanding strategy of denying quarterbacks on plays before the ball is thrown. 

Despite the Garden State’s reputation for hospitality, Princeton will not be welcoming back senior defensive linemen Jake Heimlicher and Grant Ristoff from injured reserve with open arms. Heimlicher is the first back-to-back Ivy League Defensive Player of the Week in Penn history and has become a name to watch by opposing quarterbacks with the most sacks in the conference.

Regardless of what happens this weekend, the Quakers' season will be remembered as one that turned around a fledgling program into an Ivy League heavyweight. Very few fans expected the Red and Blue to jumpstart to a 6-0 record after finishing 3-7 last season and winning just one conference game. 

“This is not a week of preparation; it has been nine months of preparation to get to this point in time," Priore said. "Our players have worked hard. We really want it.” 

With so much on the line this Saturday in a showdown between two teams who often mirror each other’s strengths and successes, Priore expects that the game can very well come down to the last moment as it did against Dartmouth and Yale. 

Penn will take on Princeton this Saturday at 1:00 p.m. on Powers Field in Princeton, N.J. Fans can stream the game live on ESPN+.