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Penn’s defense showing late-season improvement by believing

Penn's offense has been strong, but the defense has given the team belief.

Penn's Prince Emili (78) and Taheeb Sonekan have been the biggest keys to better defensive play for Penn.
Penn's Prince Emili (78) and Taheeb Sonekan have been the biggest keys to better defensive play for Penn.Read moreHEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer

It was first-and-goal on the 10-yard line. Penn was up on Harvard, 24-20, with a little more than seven minutes left in the fourth quarter. The Quakers needed a stop. A first-down run and three incomplete passes later, they got it.

Stops hadn’t been common for them. Maybe it was good fortune. So they had to do it again.

Harvard got the ball back one last time with 40 yards to go. They went four plays and out. The Quakers stuffed a fourth-and-1 run and got in victory formation for the third consecutive week.

“The last three times that we’ve won, it’s been in very dramatic fashion, which has really been firing our kids up,” Penn coach Ray Priore said.

The Quakers’ defense is a critical reason for the three-game winning streak. Before Saturday’s win over Harvard, each of Penn’s previous five opponents had more than 400 yards of offense. The Quakers allowed Cornell and Harvard to combine for just 40 points after giving up 42 points per game in their previous three games.

“Guys [are] making plays when given the opportunity,” Priore said. “The nice part about it is it’s been a different combination each week.”

Everything starts up front, and that’s what has led the change for Penn. Senior defensive linemen Prince Emili and Taheeb Sonekan have improved against the run and created difficult third-down situations.

Emili leads the team with 13 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks. Sonekan has five tackles for loss and two sacks.

Their play is important in Priore’s 3-4 defense because it creates opportunities for the linebackers, and that’s where Brian O’Neill and Zach Evans come in. Evans has a team-leading 78 tackles. O’Neill is the leader in interceptions (3) and has racked up 12.5 tackles for loss.

The late-season improvements will be put to the test Saturday when Penn (5-4, 3-3 Ivy League) hosts Princeton (7-2, 4-2) at 1 p.m. The Tigers have a high-powered offense, third in the Ivy League in scoring.

“Our nemesis is still big plays against us,” Priore said.

Saturday’s game will be the 111th meeting in the rivalry’s storied history. Princeton leads, 67-42-1, and won last season, 42-14.

“I said to the kids Friday night before the [Harvard] game, everybody works hard; that’s a given,” Priore said. “But you have to believe in what you’re doing as a team and as a unit.”