BETHLEHEM, Penn. — “See you in the end zone,” was all wide receiver Jesse Baker ’09 had to say to his quarterback as they were breaking up the huddle.
About 10 seconds later, that’s exactly where the two met, celebrating Cornell’s 25-24 victory over Lehigh that had seemed almost impossible merely seconds earlier.
“It really was a dog fight,” said head coach Jim Knowles ‘87, trying to sum up the back-and-forth, rollercoaster feel of the entire afternoon. Seven lead changes, four fourth-quarter touchdowns and a leaping catch by Baker in the front corner of the end zone that won the game with three zeroes on the clock — nothing short of a classic.
The jump ball from quarterback Nathan Ford ’09 erased a five-point Lehigh lead and capped a bizarre 17-play, 78-yard drive that spanned the final 4:57 of the game. Ford totaled 68 yards passing on the drive, converting a third-and-seven and three different fourth downs — the last being the game-winning touchdown.
“I still can’t believe it happened,” Ford said.
Ford’s gaudy totals on the last drive pushed him to 438 yards passing for the game, the third most in Cornell history. Rising senior Stephen Liuzza tacked on a 34-yard completion on an option play, giving the team 472 yards through the air, the most ever by a Cornell football team.
The win also gave Cornell its first 3-0 start since the 1999 season. Cornell’s three wins have come by a total of five points. But Saturday Oct. 4, 2008 was about the present, not the past. Cornell brought its passing attack — so futile a week ago against Yale — to the rolling hills of the Pennsylvania countryside. Nestled among miles of forestry stretching out in every direction from the stadium, a rowdy, Lehigh alumni-laden crowd saw Cornell time-and-time again spread the field with four- and five-wide receiver sets.
“Our game plan was to throw the ball a lot more going into the game, not just [something we decided as] the game developed,” Knowles said. “Going into this game, we thought we might throw the ball 60 times.”
And that it did, registering 64 total passing attempts to tie the Cornell record. But it wasn’t as if the Red had much of a choice. It was clear from early on in the contest that Cornell wasn’t going to get anything going on the ground.
On the offense’s first trip into the red zone, it tried to punch it in on the ground, but failed to gain any yards in two attempts at a direct snap to rising senior running back Randy Barbour. The Red settled for a field goal to cut Lehigh’s lead to 6-3.
“It just wasn’t working today,” Knowles said of the rushing game that picked up a mere 21 yards on 20 carries. “That part of the game plan wasn’t working.”
Trying to catch Lehigh off guard, Knowles reached into his bag of tricks and called for an onside kick, which safety Tim Bax ‘09 recovered.
This time, Cornell went to the air the whole way down, spreading the field and letting Ford find his receivers over the middle, on quick out-routes, and down the sidelines. Ford punched it in on a sneak to give the squad its first lead at 10-6.
“They found a completely different approach on the offensive side of the ball,” said Lehigh head coach Andy Coen. “They threw the ball tremendously today, which is disappointing to me. … I thought their quarterback was outstanding today.”
Ford was able to camp out behind his offensive line the whole game. He barely got touched on most plays, even though he frequently rolled out or stepped up in the pocket.
“To throw the ball 63 times and not give up a sack, that’s unbelievable,” Knowles said. “Even when we are throwing the ball, we can emphasize that physical control of the game up front.”
The offensive line has, in fact, not given up a sack through the first three games of the year.
“With the [offensive line], are you kidding me?” Ford said. “We lead the country, I haven’t gotten sacked. They did an awesome job, awesome.”
“The only way you stop a quarterback is to knock him down and we didn’t do that,” Coen said.”
But Lehigh took the momentum right back going into the locker room. Cornell tried to sit on the ball and run the clock out as the second quarter wound down, but was forced to punt the ball with only a few seconds left.
The Mountain Hawks’ Jarrard Cribbs fielded the punt and wove around his blockers, virtually untouched as he broke away from the pack. After beating the kicker, Cribbs seemed to have a clear sideline, but Barbour came streaking across the field, nearly beating Cribbs to his own spot. A key block from Craig Zurn, however, left Barbour grasping empty-handed for Cribbs as he finished his 84-yard return.
“I knew Jarrard would get past the punter, so I moved up and Jarrard set up really nice and it was an easy play for me,” Zurn said.
“It was a fabulous play by him,” Coen said. “A big time play.”
The point after, however, would prove to be as equally damning as the touchdown seemed to be momentum changing. Lehigh kicker Jason Leo shanked the kick wide, sending the Mountain Hawks into the locker room with a 12-10 lead. Little did anyone know that one point would be the difference in the game.
“As big a play as any is the missed extra point at the end of the first half,” Coen said. “Then you have to start chasing extra points, working off the two-point chart.”
And that’s exactly what the teams did in the second half — or the fourth quarter, to be more exact. After an opening-drive field goal gave the Red the lead back at 13-12, the teams traded possessions to no avail. Even though Ford continued to pile up yards, he also cost the offense a good chance at points, tossing a red zone interception, his third pick of the afternoon.
But then the action-packed fourth quarter began. Each drive ended in a touchdown. Each team kept one-upping the other — with both side’s aerial attacks in the starring role.
Lehigh struck first on a quick-hitting, two-play 59-yard drive. A 50-yard bomb to a wide-open Mike Fitzgerald put the Mountain Hawks up 18-13 after a failed two-point conversion.
“We had a bust,” Knowles said. “We were running a zone blitz and the person who was supposed to be in the middle didn’t get back, which is frustrating.”
But Knowles didn’t want to belabor the point. It was a mistake, he said, and the team had to move on. It did exactly that on the next possession, with Ford finding his two favorite targets in Baker and Zac Canty ‘09 to finish off the drive. Baker caught a 15-yard bullet over the middle. A failed two-point attempt of its own left the score at 19-18.
The wild fourth quarter put both Canty and Baker over the century mark in receiving yards. Canty had a game-high 11 catches and 120 yards, while Baker had career bests in both catches (10), yards (141) and tied a career high in touchdowns with two. He now has four on the season.
“I tried different things,” Coen said. “But some of the yards they got [through the air] were in man-to-man situations and they made some plays off of that. … Our guys that had been beaten in some other situations may have played off a little softer than they needed to and gave them some of those throws in the flat.”
But the Red defense was equally futile in bringing down Lehigh quarterback J.B. Clark and his receivers. Lehigh used two big plays to take the lead back. Clark dumped it off to running back Matt McGowan, who was dragged virtually to a stop by linebacker Brian Ostrowsky ‘09. He kept motoring though, and broke free for 28 yards. Two plays later, Clark himself deftly shed tacklers as he trotted into the end zone for a 24-19 lead.
“I think some plays, we weren’t moving our feet and maybe we were trying to get a kill shot and we just kind of forget about the fundamentals,” said rising senior linebacker Chris Costello who had a game-high 11 tackles, including 2.5 for a loss.
Regardless, the stage had been set for one of the more exhilarating comebacks in recent Cornell football history.
“I’m real proud of how our team stayed together against a good team,” Knowles said. “Lehigh is going to win some ball games. They are talented, athletic and play great defense.”