Halloween — and the peak of so-called spooky season — isn't until Tuesday. But for Penn football, their worst nightmares came true Friday night.
Under the lights of Franklin Field, Penn (5-2, 2-2 Ivy) fell to Brown (4-3, 2-2) in a 30-26 thriller, which almost featured a fourth-quarter comeback that would have been among the most electric in recent years.
With the conference’s leading passers — Brown’s Jake Willcox and Penn’s Aidan Sayin — at the helm of their respective offenses, this game was predicted to be a shootout. In its first two drives, Brown marched down the field, picking up key third and fourth down conversions, with Willcox escaping defenders on a third-down scramble to extend one possession.
“The first half their scheme was drawn up well. It seemed like everything they were doing was working. When we stopped one thing, they just went to another,” senior linebacker Jack Fairman, who finished with nine tackles, said.
Evading Penn's defense was a recurring theme for Brown. Willcox, whose 2,216 passing yards make him the current leader of the Ivy League, had 47 rushing yards and multiple instances where he was able to scramble.
“We just didn’t tackle well and we gave a lot of yards after contact. And I think that in the end when you watch that tape back, you’d look back and say should have, could have had a couple of those plays,” coach Ray Priore said. “We forced them to scramble and we just didn’t contain him. Again, he’s shiftier in person than when you watch him on tape."
However, Penn's defense forced the Bears to settle for field goals multiple times, including a stop on the edge of the red zone on the first drive of the game. Following that stop, the Quaker offense answered with a touchdown drive that featured huge receiving plays from senior running back Jonathan Mulatu and sophomore receiver Jared Richardson, as well as a rushing touchdown from sophomore quarterback Liam O’Brien.
But after taking the league, Sayin threw two interceptions on back-to-back possessions in the second quarter. Both of them set the Bears up inside Penn territory, and the second of which led to a go-ahead touchdown for Brown.
“Win or loss, the number that always strikes you is the turnover [margin],” Priore said.
Later in the quarter, though, Brown still put up two touchdowns, giving the Bears a 20-17 halftime lead. The only thing making the deficit one score was a strong drive by Penn's offense in the final minutes of the half, set up by a huge punt return by sophomore running back Isaac Shabay and a touchdown pass from Sayin to sophomore wideout Alex Haight, who logged a career-high 89 yards.
But coming out of the break, Brown regained the momentum, scoring a touchdown and a field goal to go up 30-17 with 15 minutes left to play.
This fourth quarter could have been the talk of Penn football legend, and it started with a bang, as Sayin found Richardson in the end zone on the Quakers' first possession of the period. Following senior kicker Graham Gotlieb's extra point, Penn was in striking distance at 24-30.
“That touchdown lifted everybody up. It showed that we have some grit, some determination to make plays and everybody’s energy levels went up,” Richardson said.
With a victory in reach, the Quaker defense forced a punt, giving Sayin and the rest of Penn's offense a chance to take its first lead since the game was 7-6.
“We never give up. It’s the coaching staff and our culture. Every time we get a chance to go out there, we give 100% whether it’s the first play of the game or the last,” Fairman said.
The drive started off strong, with a pair of passes to freshman running back Malachi Hosley moving the ball 41 yards to the Bears’ 37-yard line. From there, Sayin threw three incomplete passes, but on the third-down throw pass interference was called on Brown, giving the Quakers a fresh set of downs at the 22-yard line. Quickly, Penn had a first-and-goal at the nine, with the clock under two minutes and four tries at a game-winning touchdown.
Following two plays for little gain, it was quickly third down. The Franklin Field crowd watched with bated breath as the Quakers lined up. Like earlier in the quarter, Sayin targeted Richardson, who ran a route to the end zone. But instead of a touchdown, this time the ball ended up in the arms of Brown's Isaiah Reed for Sayin's third interception of the game.
The silence was deafening.
“At the end of the day, I had to make the play. I didn’t make the play. Sayin threw the ball and I didn’t come down with it,” Richardson said.
After forcing a three-and-out, and Brown getting a safety on a punt attempt, the Quakers got the ball with under 40 seconds left and one last chance for a miracle. But a few plays later, the hope for a comeback died as Sayin took a sack, ending the game.
Despite a deflating defeat, Priore didn't remark on how things may have gone differently for Penn, instead staying focused on committing to his team and declaring what he does know.
“They’re a resilient group and handle a lot of things on their plate. I’m proud of them in that respect and we’ll keep them going,” Priore said. “These kids have been through a lot … [and] are giving everything they can give.”
Penn returns to Franklin Field looking for its first Ivy win at home against Cornell (3-4, 2-2) for Homecoming next Saturday.