The football team finally found an answer to its red zone scoring woes, and his name is Johnny Pena ’17.
After watching numerous scoring opportunities slip through their fingers the first five weeks of the season, the Bears (4-2, 2-1 Ivy) turned to their junior running back to finish drives Saturday. The former third-stringer pounded in four 1-yard rushing touchdowns to lift the squad to a 44-24 victory Saturday at Cornell (0-6, 0-3).
“He’s just another guy that epitomizes the next man up mentality,” said co-captain Marcus Fuller ’15.5. “He’s gotten a lot more carries because of some injuries, and he’s really stepped up in a big way.”
Bruno controlled the game from start to finish en route to its fourth consecutive win. Nine minutes into the game, the Bears already enjoyed a 21-0 lead and continued the torrid pace to a comfortable 34-10 halftime edge.
“We had a gameplan that we had coming into the game and we stuck to it,” Fuller said. “We did a good job of executing — taking what the defense was giving us, not forcing things.”
Just as he had done with a kick return last week, wide receiver Alex Jette ’17 ignited the Bruno effort with a touchdown in the first minute of play. Quarterback Marcus Fuller ’15.5 found the speedy Jette for a 57-yard strike on just the fourth play from scrimmage. The Big Red secondary could not catch Jette as he scampered to a 7-0 Bruno lead.
Jette did the lion’s share of the work again on Bruno’s second possession, a 77-yard touchdown march. The junior receiver corralled passes of 10, 12 and 28 yards on the drive, the last of which set up Pena’s first 1-yard slam.
All told, the Fuller-to-Jette formula produced nine completions for 157 yards and a touchdown — all before halftime.
“Jette’s done a great job,” Fuller said. “He’s taken an increased role in stride. He definitely showed some flashes a year ago, and we’ve asked him to do a little bit more this year. I think he’s as good as any receiver you’re going to get in this league.”
The Bruno defense did its part to maintain the team’s fast start. Last week’s Ivy League Defensive Player of the Week Will Twyman ’16 stepped up again on Cornell’s second possession. With the Big Red backed against its own end zone, Twyman laid a big hit on running back Dane Brown. The blow jarred the ball free, and Twyman’s fellow linebacker Michael Walsh ’16 smothered the pigskin at the 1-yard line. Pena did the rest of the work on the next play.
In two second-quarter touchdown drives, the Bears’ offense operated like a well-oiled machine. Balancing the run and pass, Bruno marched 52 and 74 yards in consecutive possessions. Receiver Brian Strachan ’15.5 capped the first drive with a 30-yard touchdown snag. After finishing second in the Ivy League in touchdown catches in 2014, Strachan was scoreless through four games this season. But touchdowns in each of his last two games have the senior rolling again.
The next possession had a little bit of everything. Fuller found three different receivers for grabs of over 10 yards. Pena churned out 17 yards on four carries, including his third score.
Bruno’s fifth score perfectly represented the element Pena brought to the offense. Facing first-and-goal at the 7-yard line, Head Coach Phil Estes P’18 elected to run the ball with Pena on three consecutive plays. The human bowling ball gained three yards on first down, three yards on second down and then one yard over the goal line. Entering Saturday, Bruno had only six touchdowns in its 16 trips inside the opponents’ 10-yard line — a putrid 37.5 percent touchdown rate. But on Saturday, the Bears were four-for-four thanks to Pena.
Fuller had some humorous praise for the junior’s attitude. “Somehow, in a sick way, he really enjoys contact and punishing guys when the ball’s in his hand,” he said.
Pena finished his big day with 25 carries, 112 yards and four touchdowns — all career highs for the backup’s backup. With top running backs Andrew Coke ’16 and Seth Rosenbauer ’16 in and out of the lineup with injuries, Pena has capitalized on his opportunities.
After rapidly building their lead, the Bears faltered defensively in the second half. The Big Red amassed 271 yards in its final five drives alone and even cut the lead to 10 early in the fourth quarter. But Bruno pulled away, scoring the final 10 points of the game.
Bruno’s winning streak has carried the squad to a tie with Penn for third place in the Ivy League. The Quakers and Bears square off at Brown Stadium Saturday.
“We’re on a nice little streak here,” Fuller said. “Penn’s going to be a challenge for us this week.”