LEWISBURG, PA — Just like last year, Cornell football (1-0) started slow against Bucknell (1-2), falling into an early hole. Just like last year, the Red eventually found its groove and built a lead. Just like last year, the Bison stormed back, threatening to steal a miraculous victory.
But unlike last year, the men of Cornell football did not let the game get away from them, holding off a late surge to take the victory, 24-16. This marks the first time the team opened the season with a win since 2013.
Senior linebacker Jackson Weber said a central reason the Red was able to capture the victory was that the team had a different mindset this year than it did last year.
“This team throughout the preseason and coming into this week has collectively a much higher level of confidence than we’ve had in the past,” the captain said. “We trust each other. We believe we’re going to get the job done from start to finish, and that shined through in the end and we sealed the deal.”
Sophomore Chris Walker, one of the stars on offense for the team, agreed with Weber on the team’s evolution.
“The confidence in one another is different,” Walker said, “More playmakers this year. We’ve got a lot more talent and depth this year.”
Last year, a few huge fourth down conversions allowed Bucknell to complete a comeback and this game the Red seemed doomed to the same fate. However, head coach David Archer ‘05 credited the win to the team’s resiliency and tireless work over the offseason.
“It’s just so fun to see the guys hard work pay off,” Archer said. “It’s great to see them to battle back from adversity and show some grit and get the win.”
Trailing by eight, but with the momentum, Bucknell faced a fourth and long. After Cornell benefited from a false start, pushing the Bison back to a fourth and 14, Bucknell quarterback Matt Muh connected with Will Carter for a 29-yard pick-up.
Despite the “eery” similarities to last year, Archer said he was confident the defense would complete the necessary stops to get the offense the ball.
“I thought we were going to stop them,” Archer said, admitting he was not worried that last year’s events would transpire again. “I was thinking about what play calls to run [when we get the ball].”
The defense made the stop, the offense killed the rest of the time on clock and the Red sang “Cornell Victorious,” in front of adoring fans for just the third time in as many years.
The game began with a scary moment when junior safety Sean Scullen went down with an injury on the first punt of the game. An ambulance took Scullen off the field. While no official injury report has been released, Scullen has reportedly been released from the hospital and made the trip back to Ithaca with the team.
When play resumed, Bucknell worked down the field, powering towards the goal line. On a second-and-goal from the one-yard line, Bison running back Joseph DeFloria punched through the Red’s defense to give Bucknell a 7-0 lead.
DeFloria was a threat all game, totaling 154 on the ground. With a knack for finding holes in Cornell’s defense, DeFloria averaged 5.7 yards per carry.
Following a long catch-and-run on the team’s next possession, Bucknell threatened again, but a diving interception in the end zone from sophomore cornerback DJ Woullard — his first of two picks on the night — ended the Bison’s scoring hopes. The interception was one of three turnovers forced by the Red, a remarkable improvement from last year when Cornell struggled to take the ball away.
“That’s something that we really preach,” Weber said of the turnovers. “We practice it every single day. It’s very fulfilling to have that come out in the game after practicing it for so long.”
Later in the quarter, two big fourth down conversions on Bucknell’s third drive of the day allowed the Bison to maneuver down the field to the five-yard line. A couple of big stops from the Red halted Bucknell and forced them to kick a field goal, dropping Cornell into a 10-0 deficit with 11:24 left to play in the first half.
Weber said part of the reason Bucknell was able to pounce on the Red so early in the game was that the Bison had kicked off its season two weeks earlier, saying the earlier start gave the team an advantage in game readiness.
“We came out a little slow,” Weber said ‘“They’ve played two games, we haven’t played anyone. Once we got our game legs under us, we started to excel.”
Cornell answered the field goal with one of its own, a 41-yard attempt from Zach Mays, a career long for the sophomore.
Having points on the scoreboard seemed to make Cornell turn things up a notch. On the ensuing Bucknell drive, the Red forced a three-and-out. And then after receiving the ball deep in its own territory, Cornell marched down the field, using Walker’s speed and precise passing from sophomore quarterback Dalton Banks to engineer a long drive to the end zone.
A 10-yard run around the left side from Banks to cap the drive gave the Red its first touchdown of the season and tied the game going into the half. Without any regular season experience under his belt, Banks appeared to possess decision-making skills more common in a veteran.
Part of the reason Banks’ rushing plays were so effective was due to the success Walker found at tailback. With Bucknell’s attention placed firmly on the shifty speedster, Banks was able to call his own number and pick up short gains. Walker ended with 133 yards on just 16 carries.
“It started with [the offensive] line,” Walker said. “We’ve got a lot of upperclassmen that really set the tone for us and they got the edge going.”
After two straight plays when the Red failed to make what appeared to be sure tackles, DeFloria added a second touchdown for Bucknell, breaking the 10-10 tie, but a blocked extra point attempt kept the score 16-10.
On the ensuing drive, Walker continued his strong rushing performance, breaking off a 24-yard run on the Red’s first play of the third quarter. A mix of run and pass plays set up a one-yard touchdown run for Banks.
Bucknell seemed to put together a solid offensive drive to answer the Red’s second touchdown but Woullard again put an end to it, picking off Muh for the second time of the night. With the ball and the momentum, Cornell tacked on another score, a 22-yard pass from Banks to Sullivan on third and one to take a 24-16 lead.
“We had a few third and shorts throughout the game,” Sullivan said. “We ran it and ran it and ran it. It was just a great play call [to go deep]. Coach Archer set it up perfectly throughout the game.”
Bucknell took the ball back and made its way down the field. But Cornell’s defense was unshakeable, forcing a fumble when the Red needed it most. Sophomore linebacker Malcolm Chaka popped the ball out of DeFloria’s hands and junior linebacker Kurt Frimel pounced on it.
While the Red went three and out after the fumble, Cornell’s defense again stepped up huge as the clock inched towards zero.
“It’s a testament to the conditioning, because obviously they were moving the ball and pushing us around,” Archer said. “When it mattered and when we had to come up with something, we did. I’m so proud of [defensive coordinator Jared] Backus and the defensive coaches and the defensive kids.”
WIth a 1-0 record, Cornell’s team already has as many wins as it accumulated in its entire last season.
“It’s definitely like we kind of already tied what we did last year,” Walker said. “But that’s not something we’re settling on. We want to settle on something way better than that. The expectations of this year are set extremely high with this group and we can achieve it.”
The sentiment seems to be a recurring theme of this year’s team: while a win over Bucknell may be surprising for those not familiar with the team, those on the squad expect it.
“This whole preseason we’ve had a different mindset,” Banks said. “Everyone has had this great feeling about it. Now that it’s solidified after week one, we’re just going to keep it rolling and hope to keep the wins coming.”