By David Porter | After starting the season with a 61-18 win against San Diego, the Quakers saw their 17-game win streak the longest active streak in Division 1-AAsnapped against the team that delivered their last loss two Octobers ago. Penns football team fell to the Villanova Wildcats 16-13 in the home opener on September 25.
The loss was largely the result of missed opportunities: Kicker Evan Nolan, a senior, had two field goal attempts blocked and hit the upright on another, and three Quaker trips inside the Wildcats 20-yard line yielded no points in the first half. By the time seniors Dan Castles and Matt Makowsky caught touchdown passes in the final six minutes, it was too little, too late. On the positive side, Penn outgained Villanova and junior quarterback Pat McDermott had a scintillating, 39-yard run on which he faked one Wildcat defender completely out of his cleats as he weaved through the defense. But the feeling was that a prime opportunity had been squandered.
I think the mood was one of anger and frustration, like they let one get away, Penn head coach Al Bagnoli said, as opposed to a moral victory because it was a three-point game. For the first time (against them), we went into the game feeling like we did not have to play a perfect game to have a chance to win, because for the first time we were on equal footing in terms of quarterbacks. And we felt defensively we could do some things, and it went pretty much according to script. Unfortunately for us, when we had opportunities, we didnt convert.
Few opportunities were missed against Dartmouth the following week in a 35-0 shellacking, as Castles and McDermott collaborated on three first-half touchdown passes and junior running back Sam Mathews finished with 132 yards on 23 carries. Carrying on in the tradition of recent years, Penns defense had allowed less than two yards per rush through the first three games, certainly a bad sign for any of the Ivy League teams that hope to knock the Quakers off their perch atop the league.
Mathews play was a big reason the Quakers finished undefeated last season, and why they won two of their first three games this season. Hes also very polite: its rare these days to be addressed as sir and be greeted with a steady gaze and a firm handshake. This habit may be a holdover from the year Mathews spent at the U.S. Naval Academy before transferring to Penn (as for keeping a spotless dorm room, lets just say that habit seems to have been dropped). Make no mistake, though: once Mathews steps onto the football field, deference and respect do not enter into the equation. When he breaks through the first wave of tacklers and into the defensive backfield, its time to put out a small-craft advisory for any unlucky cornerbacks or safeties in his way.
Coach Bagnoli had recruited Mathews hard out of Mount Lebanon High in western Pennsylvania, but Mathews older brother was already a linebacker at Navy and one visit was all it took to convince Sam to follow the beaten path. Fate may have stepped in, however, in the guise of a trip through Philadelphia on the way back from Annapolis.
we were coming back from Navy, we came through Philly and we actually
walked through the stadium, went in the weight room, Mathews said.
Me, my mom, and my dad were just walking around. Then we drove home
Mathews saw limited time at running back for the Midshipmen during his one season on the varsity. When he found the academys lifestyle and academic choices not to his liking, Penn became a logical option. After sitting out the 2002 season under NCAA transfer rules, he exploded onto the scene in 2003 with 1,266 yards rushing and 13 touchdowns, which included three touchdown receptions. His 1,577 overall yards from scrimmage constituted 36 percent of Penns total tally. This season he had three touchdowns in the first three games and was averaging just under five yards per carry.
The political-science major is satisfied with life off the field as well. People ask me which is the harder school. I think theyre both as hard, but in different ways, Mathews said. Navy has a lot of things you have to get done, responsibility-wise, but there are more distractions here. Its a good mix. Of course, if any of the guys who were in charge of me at the academy walked in my room now, theyd probably shoot me.
Dave Porter C82 writes for the Associated Press.
2004 The Pennsylvania Gazette