PHILADELPHIA - In a game that was marked by stout defense, the Penn football team dropped its season opener to three-time defending Patriot League champion Lafayette, 8-7, Saturday night at Franklin Field.
Holding a 7-3 lead with five minutes left in the game, Penn took a calculated risk. Backed all the way up to its 1-yard line, the Quakers looked like they might attempt a fake punt to get out of trouble. However, as punter Anthony Melillo ran toward the left sideline it was clear the Leopards had sniffed it out, and so instead he stepped out of the back of the end zone for a safety, making the score 7-5 in Penn’s favor.
Unfortunately, the gamble backfired -- Penn then kicked off to Lafayette, and the Leopards never gave Penn the ball back. Instead, they drove from their own 46-yard line to the Quakers 10-yard line, gaining their first lead of the game with just five seconds left when Davis Rodriguez kicked a 27-yard field goal.
The loss was a tough way for Penn’s defense to end this game, because it was outstanding all night. The Quakers allowed the Leopards to gain 312 yards but did not let them into the end zone, as the visitor’s points came on a pair of field goals and the safety. In addition, Penn picked up three interceptions and recovered a pair of fumbles.
Joe Anastasio led the defensive charge; the first-team All-Ivy linebacker from a year ago had 14 tackles Saturday night. Tyson Maugle had 10 stops, including seven solo, as wel as a sack, a forced fumble and two pass breakups. On the other side, sophomore Chris Wynn came up with two interceptions.
On the other side of the ball, however, Penn committed three turnovers, and the Quakers never could get it going against a tough Lafayette defense. The job got even tougher in the second half, when first-team All-Ivy running back Joe Sandberg was forced to take a seat due to a muscle strain in his left leg. He will be evaluated again Sunday or Monday. Prior to taking a seat, Sandberg had gained 85 yards on 17 rushes.
Kelms Amoo-Achampong came on in relief of Sandberg and gained 24 yards on 15 carries.
Robert Irvin got the start at quarterback, completing 13-of-27 passes for 99 yards. Senior Braden Lepisto caught seven balls for 84 yards, leading the receiving corps, while Dan Coleman had three receptions for 14 yards.
Penn looked like it might put points on the board on its first drive, getting down to the Lafayette 11-yard line before the Leopard defense held. In a sight that had to be difficult for Quaker fans, freshman kicker Andrew Samson then bounced his 28-yard field goal off the right upright, and Penn came away empty.
The Quakers left nothing to chance the next time they got the ball, looking extremely efficient in covering 57 yards in nine plays. During the drive, Irvin and Lepisto hooked up for 13 yards; Sandberg covers 12 yards on a rush; and Amoo-Achampong scampered 13 more yards to set up Sandberg’s 1-yard rush around the right side for a 7-0 lead.
While Penn was driving at will, the defense was simply swarming. The Quakers knocked Lafayette back two yards on the Leopards’ first drive; pushed them back another yard on their second three-and-out; and pushed them back four yards on their third drive. In fact, it was not until four minutes were left in the first that the Pards finally got into positive yardage.
Lafayette took advantage of Penn’s first turnover of the night to gain its first points. Quaker senior Gregory Ambrogi fumbled a Pard punt at his own 29-yard line, and it was recovered by Lafayette’s DeAndre Morrow. The Leopards took seven plays to get to Penn’s 2-yard line, but the Quakers held and Lafayette was forced to settle for a 21-yard Rodriguez field goal.
After that, this game essentially took place between the 20s as neither offense made much of a dent. The closest Penn got to the Lafayette goal line was the Leopards’ 26-yard line, only to see Samson push a 43-yard field goal attempt wide.; on the other side, Lafayette could not get closer than the Quakers’ 22-yard line in the third quarter, and that drive ended with Rodriguez missing a 39-yard field goal wide right.
The game turned when Penn got the ball on its own 10-yard line with 6:55 left. Amoo-Achampong ran for two yards, then five morewhich seemed to get the Quakers out of trouble. However, that run was nullified by a holding penalty that brought the ball back toPenn's 6-yard line. After an Irvin pass to Marcus Lawrence went incomplete, Amoo-Achampong was dropped for a five-yard loss on third down thatmade itfourth downat the Penn 1-yard line.
That is when Penn took the fateful chance.