The next installment of Penn football’s story kicks off this Saturday on Sep. 16 against the Colgate Raiders.
That headline may sound like déjà vu. Last year, Penn opened its season against Colgate (0-2) in a comeback 25-14 win at Franklin Field. It was a tale of two halves: a first half where the Quakers fell 14-3 and a second half in which the Quaker offense outscored Colgate 22-0.
This year, the Red and Blue have the firepower required to replicate that second half offensive magic. Junior quarterback Aidan Sayin is back at the helm after earning an All-Ivy honorable mention last season and throwing for 2,344 yards and 18 passing touchdowns. He is also the sole junior captain this season.
“What we have with Aidan is 15 games [of] experience," coach Ray Priore said. "I thought he did an outstanding job [last season], a younger player acclimating him to the situation.” Now as a more experienced player with strong returning receivers such as wide-recievers senior Joshua Casilli and junior Julien Stokes, he has the potential to outperform his debut season as QB1.
Sayin and Casilli are two of five captains on the Quakers roster. They are joined by three more seniors: linebacker Jonathan Melvin, defensive lineman Joey Slackman, and defensive back Kendren Smith.
“Any way I tried to break [captain voting down], those five young men stood out above the rest,” Priore said when asked about voting on captains. “They are representative of the full group of kids we have at our program. They’ve done a great job through the wintertime, the springtime, been here most of the summer training.”
That summer of work will be integral against Colgate. The Raiders return their dual-threat junior quarterback Michael Brescia, who accumulated 13 rushing touchdowns and seven passing touchdowns last season. Brescia and the rest of the offense still leans towards the running game: In its season-opening 65-0 loss against Syracuse, Colgate finished with 108 rushing yards and 52 passing yards. However, the team ran 38 rushing plays versus only 20 pass attempts.
Furthermore, Brescia ran more times than he completed a pass, finishing with eight rushing attempts and only seven completed passes. In the team's second game, – a 42-19 loss at Villanova – Brescia and Colgate tried to better integrate their passing game. Brescia threw for 225 yards on 16 completions of 30 attempts, including one touchdown and one interception.
The Quakers defense could win the game if they stall the Raiders offense in their tracks by stopping the running game and stifling Colgate's burgeoning passing game. Last season, the Quakers were a defensive stronghold against the running game: They allowed only an average of 89.4 rushing yards per game and only seven rushing touchdowns the whole season.
This opener will answer the question of how the Quakers will fill the hole left by players like Jake Heimlicher, who transferred to UCLA. But players like Melvin, Slackman, and Smith are still there. Melvin and Slackman, who both play in the front seven, received preseason second team All-Ivy honors, and Smith made preseason first team All-Ivy.
On offense the Quakers will need a new go-to guy to run the football. Trey Flowers is now an alumnus of the program after years as the main running back. He was out for a few games last season but still led the team with seven rushing touchdowns, including game-winners against Dartmouth and Princeton. Fifth-year senior running back Jonathan Mulatu is expected to slide into that spot, having taken over for Flowers as the starter for three games in 2022. He ran the ball for three touchdowns last season. He and others will need to step up for the Quakers to maintain a formidable running game.
But perhaps the biggest factor going into this matchup is experience. The Raiders will have two games under their belt by the time they play the Quakers. Penn is third on their schedule, following Syracuse and Villanova. In contrast, Penn will take the field for the first time against Colgate.
“The advantage they have is the two-game head start on us. They can get all the kinks out,” Priore said. “It’ll be our first game, so there’ll be a lot of first game energy we’ll have to deal with and obviously a couple mistakes. We worry about ourselves.”
It is a similar situation to last season’s opener, with Colgate already having played two games before taking on Penn. But if it is anything like last year, Penn will leave upstate New York with the first win of its season.