NEW YORK — The Cornell football team historically dominated Columbia during the century of the unofficial “Empire State Bowl.” Saturday, however, the Red got off to a rocky start in the newly christened official “Empire State Bowl,” squandering a 14-point, fourth quarter lead and falling to the Lions, 20-17.
The densely red visitor’s side — which overwhelmed the scattered light blue across the field — saw the Red (2-7, 1-6 Ivy) lead nearly wire-to-wire before relenting in the waning moments to Columbia quarterback Sean Brackett, who dove in from a yard out for the winning score with 37 seconds remaining. The score capped a rally of 17 unanswered points by the Lions.
Brackett had his hand in nearly every play for the Lions (4-5, 2-4 Ivy), throwing 41 passes and piling up 25 rushes. Of his 151 rushing yards, 108 came in the second half and got the Lions’ offense churning. Brackett’s double-digit runs fueled two of the Lions’ second half scoring drives as Red defenders struggled to contain him to the pocket.
“I think he’s put that perfection thing on the shelf,” said Columbia head coach Norries Wilson while praising his quarterback.
On an unseasonably warm day, Cornell moved the ball fluidly through three quarters behind freshman quarterback Jeff Mathews, who completed 15-of-27 passes for 183 yards through those periods. The Red committed to the run as well with 28 rushes through three stanzas, winning the time of possession battle as a result. The offensive line gave Mathews time, avoiding some of the protection issues that have been plaguing the group recently. That all changed when the final period began, though, and Cornell couldn’t hang on.
Offensive chicanery got Cornell in position for its first score when Mathews lined up as a receiver and received the ball in a double reverse. He found Luke Tasker who was tripped up and stumbled down to the one, a 37-yard gain. Mathews punched it in on the ground two plays later to put Cornell up, 7-0.
Although Columbia didn’t register a first down until the second quarter and Brackett misfired to several open receivers, the Lions rallied at the end of the half, driving 89 yards to the Cornell seven. With the clock winding down Brackett tried to hit a man streaking across the middle short of the goal line. The man he wound up hitting was senior safety Ben Heller, who picked off the pass and looked to have a clear path to the other end zone. Heller tried to cut back when he saw Brackett, though, and the Columbia signal caller took him down to end the half.
A bit of offensive subterfuge again led to points for the Red as the squad extended its lead to 17-3 in the third period. Versatile junior Ryan Houska — who accounted for 95 yards via six rushes, five catches, and a pass completion — took a snap in the wildcat formation and began to dart up the middle. Nearing the line of scrimmage, he paused and instead hauled it to big tight end J.C. Tretter, a sophomore, who barreled into the end zone 27 yards downfield.
Then the Cornell offense came to a standstill. Mathews only completed two of nine passes in the fourth quarter and barely overthrew an open receiver deep downfield on a fake double reverse. As a team, the Red registered only a single first down. Cornell had controlled the ball over six minutes more than its opponent through three, but Columbia closed that gap to just over a minute and a half by the final whistle.
“Once we start on that roll, when we’re getting three-and-out, three-and-out, three-and-out, you just see it in their faces, and you see the looks on ours, and they’re completely different, and you feel that high and you feel unstoppable,” Columbia senior linebacker and captain Matt Moretto said after the game.
Columbia’s offense played off its defensive prowess and the squad climbed back into the game with a short touchdown pass by Brackett and a field goal to make it 17-13. Brackett, who had started to hit receivers more accurately and elude tacklers in the third, passed for 101 yards and ran for another 50 in the fourth quarter. He found success running the option and with several draws and scrambles.
It was a 16-yard scramble on third-and-10 that kept Columbia’s winning drive alive. Then Brackett’s arm took over as he chipped away 10 yards at a time. Cornell had a chance to squelch the drive when Columbia faced a fourth-and-one at the Red’s three-yard line. Brackett pushed the pile forward for the first down and dove into the end zone two plays later.
With two time outs and 29 seconds on the clock, Cornell, in theory, was going to get chance a last chance. Columbia’s squib kick after the late touchdown slipped through the hands of several Cornell players and the Lions kick coverage bore down on the return team, recovering the last of the fumbles.
The loss dropped Cornell to seventh in Ivy standings.
Original Author: Cory Bennett