There was less than a minute on the clock. The Quakers, fresh off a touchdown to put them at 24-31, pulled off the unthinkable and recovered an onside kick. They got back-to-back first downs, sending Franklin Field to its feet. The crowd – myself included – believed we were about to witness a miracle.
Instead, junior quarterback Aidan Sayin threw an interception on a pass to sophomore wide receiver Jared Richardson.
It was the same old story for Penn today: turnover after turnover. Penn (6-4, 3-4 Ivy) turned the ball over on not one, not two, not three but an improbable seven drives this game. Sayin threw four interceptions – surmounting his three passing touchdowns – and the other three were fumbled balls recovered by Princeton (5-5, 4-3).
While the Quakers were only one touchdown from entering their fourth overtime of the season and clocked 500 total yards of offense vs Princeton’s 277, the collapse in the second half – featuring five turnovers that turned into 21 points for the Tigers – is something that will haunt the team for the rest of the offseason.
Because honestly, I don’t know where we go next.
Some argue that Sayin is not the answer — that maybe the answer is to switch up and give sophomore quarterback Liam O’Brien the chance to prove himself. While I disagree completely, there were multiple instances today where Sayin's passes got quickly batted down by the Tigers, which has made many — and myself at times — question his decision-making. And in big moments, he seems predisposed to throw it to Richardson regardless of how much coverage was on him; it happened against Brown and it happened again today when Richardson was in triple coverage.
But are offensive coordinator Dan Swanstrom and coach Ray Priore utilizing the offense correctly? Today marks the third game where Sayin threw the ball over 50 times, and he averages over 40 attempts per game. While the passing game has exploded in the past two seasons because of Sayin and the wide receiver corps’ progression — especially sophomores Richardson, Alex Haight, and Bisi Owens — the games simply have not ended in the Quakers’ favor. The emergence of freshman running back Malachi Hosley led to a transition to more rushing attempts – especially evident in the Cornell game – but Penn turns away from it in the red-zone and whenever the Quakers are trying their miracle comeback drives.
Furthermore, the lack of aggression to end the first half still stands out to me. With a minute to go in the half, the Quakers were down 7-10 and had possession. Rather than making a push to try to get to field goal range, the Quakers instead ran two rushing plays and went to the locker room for halftime. Perhaps they felt comfortable in that moment, hopeful that their energy would be better spent in the second half than a last-minute push. But complacency has never won championships, nor will it ever.
Not to say Penn does not try. Because they did – you could tell by their determination in those last two drives where they nearly tied the game – but that high-speed, aggressive offense needs to be present all 60 minutes rather than just the last one if they ever want to hoist a banner.
And now, Penn graduates nearly 40 seniors, many of whom were key defensive players: Logan Nash, Joey Slackman, Jack Fairman, Kendren Smith, Shiloh Means, Jaden Key, Jack Iuliano – the list just goes on. Penn’s defense has kept them in the game for contests and had multiple shining moments where they turned the tide the Quakers’ way: the multiple fourth-down stops against Cornell and the second-overtime interception against Harvard.
But now, multiple holes are opening and a key part of Penn’s identity for the past few years could dissipate. If anything, this is the part I am most concerned about. Sayin, his wide receivers, and Hosley will be back. Much of the star-studded defensive group will not.
Will we compensate for the defensive talent we are losing? Will Sayin have a redemption season? Will Swanstrom find the right balance between passing and rushing? Will we play with a championship-caliber urgency all 60 minutes?
Your guess is as good as mine.
Four losses decided by a single score – it’s bittersweet just thinking about it. And as someone there for all four, I can honestly say each one hurt in its own way, from the first loss to getting knocked out of Ivy League title contention. In another life, those field goals had gone in, those interceptions were completed passes and we were celebrating an Ivy League title on Franklin Field.
But instead, this will forever be the season that got away.
KRISTEL RAMBAUD is a junior and current sports reporter studying nursing from Monroe, N.J. All comments should be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org.