PRINCETON, N.J. – The Quakers might not have won the Ivy title on Saturday, but they sure celebrated like they did.
Penn entered Saturday with the chance at a four-way Ivy title, but with Yale’s win over Harvard earlier in the afternoon, the game bore no effect on whether the Red and Blue could share an Ancient Eight crown.
And it appeared as though that would be for the best, as the Quakers fell down by 12 at the start of the fourth quarter. But in a miraculous come-from-behind victory, Penn clawed all the way back, with sophomore quarterback Aidan Sayin finding senior tailback Trey Flowers in the end zone for a touchdown with five seconds left, giving Penn a shocking 20-19 victory.
“Winning the way we won, [in that] fashion, people wrote us off, we were 11.5-point underdogs in this game going into it, and everybody before the season had us as a 3-7, fifth-place team,” Penn coach Ray Priore said. “What a way to win, to beat these guys up here in Princeton.”
On fourth down from the Tigers' five-yard line with nine seconds left, the game rested on whether or not the Quakers could convert. Sayin eyed his receivers, and with no one open, Flowers – whose role on the play was initially to block – made a judgement call and ran out of the backfield after seeing open space. Just before getting knocked down by a Princeton defensive lineman, Sayin lobbed the ball to Flowers, who came down with it despite a hit from a nearby linebacker.
During Flowers' postgame interview, offensive coordinator Dan Swanstrom came over, gave Flowers a long, emotional embrace, and exclaimed: "How about that for your final play?"
The Princeton game marks the last time Flowers will see the field as a Quaker. The senior tailback was injured for three straight bouts and could've opted to extend his eligibility another year, but chose to forego it to play in Penn's three final games this season.
“This is the only way I could go out, I had to go out with a bang,” Flowers said.
The Tigers (8-2, 5-2 Ivy) had jumped out to a 12-0 lead by the middle of the second quarter, and the Quakers (8-2, 5-2) looked hopeless. On defense, Princeton was marching up and down the field led by the steady presence of junior quarterback Blake Stenstrom, and on offense, Penn’s first three drives ended in punt, punt, interception.
But with 2:02 to go in the first half and the Tigers punting from their own territory, freshman defensive back Francesco Barone – who's mostly seen action on special teams this season – saw his blocker duck inside. With the open gap, the freshman dipped his shoulder, ran towards the punter, and dove.
Barone blocked the punt, which was recovered for a touchdown, making the score 12-7 going into halftime.
“Before the punt block, the energy on the sideline was not up to par to be honest,” Barone said. “After that, I noticed a complete change in the energy of the team.”
It was a seismic momentum shift for a squad that desperately needed it, and right out of the gate in the second half, Penn appeared ready to capitalize on it. Sayin and the offense drove the ball down to the Princeton 20, where they were faced with a second-and-15.
The sophomore signal caller threw a dart along the left side to senior wideout Rory Starkey Jr., who hauled in the catch but was brought down by three Tiger defenders, causing the ball to pop free. Junior linebacker Liam Johnson returned the fumble all the way down the sideline, resulting in a Princeton touchdown to extend the lead to 12 yet again.
One major issue for Penn all game was ball security. Although the Starkey blunder was the only fumble recovered by Princeton, the Quakers coughed up the ball a whopping six times, several of which resulted in lost yards.
Another Penn touchdown – this time on a 15-play drive by the offense – brought Penn back to within five in the fourth quarter, and after a stoppage on downs with just over five minutes left, the Quakers had a shot to take the lead late in the fourth.
Faced with a crucial fourth-and-two on their own 36, Sayin struggled to find an open receiver as he was being harangued by the Princeton D-line. In perfect timing, Starkey emerged with just enough space towards the left sideline, and Sayin found him, converting for 12 yards on one of the biggest plays of the game.
Outside of the turnover, the senior wideout had arguably one of the best performances of his season, snagging 12 catches for 95 yards in his final game as a Quaker.
Another big conversion on a fourth-and-nine by sophomore wide receiver Julien Stokes gave Penn the ball on Princeton’s 26, and an attempted deep throw to Stokes on the next play resulted in a pass interference that set Penn up on the 10.
Several plays later, Flowers caught the touchdown in the end zone that put Penn in the winner's column and spoiled Princeton's chances at splitting an Ivy title with Yale.
Postgame, Penn's players celebrated as if they had won the title, running on the field once the game had concluded and smoking victory cigars in the visitor’s locker room.
With Penn’s win and the Bulldogs’ victory over Harvard, Yale will take the Ivy League crown outright. The Bulldogs only lost one conference game this season, which came to the Quakers during Penn's Homecoming matchup.
After finishing 3-7 last season, Penn finished its 2022 campaign on Saturday that sprung its fortunes to life, securing an 8-2 record good enough for second in the Ivy League.
“We started back in December building trust, and trust is what got us through so many close games this season,” Priore said. “In this sport, if you trust, you can go really far. Football isn’t one-on-one, it’s 11-on-11, and we just outplayed them today. We fought every play, and won on the last play.”
It’ll be a long 10 months until the 2023 season for the Quakers, but with the turnaround in record – and the miraculous comeback victory at Princeton – they’ll certainly have more momentum going into next year than they did in 2022.