After 10 months of waiting and anticipating, the Cornell football team ended up on the short side of its 2012 season-opener in a classic game of inches, falling to Fordham in the Bronx, 34-27. Rams senior quarterback Ryan Higgins threw for 281 yards and two touchdowns, senior running back Carlton Koonce danced and pranced his way to 176 yards and two scores on the ground and Fordham (2-1, 0-0 Patriot League) made a few more timely plays than the Red (0-1, 0-0 Ivy League) to get back above .500 in front of 6,087 fans.
Cornell junior quarterback and offensive co-captain Jeff Mathews, the 2011 Ivy League Offensive Player of the Year, completed 38-of-56 passes for 489 yards and three touchdowns without much production from the Ancient Eight’s best wide receiver — fifth-year senior Shane Savage, who was bothered by a lower leg injury and sat out most of the game. In his last three outings, Mathews has thrown for 1,558 yards and 13 touchdowns with only one interception, but there is no need to remind third-year head coach Kent Austin.
“I don’t really care what he throws for to be honest with you,” Austin said. “I just want to win the football game. And that’s all [Jeff] cares about. Jeff’s a great player. He gives us a chance. He makes me and the rest of our staff better coaches.”
Despite gaining 518 yards of total offense, Mathews and company stuttered out of the gate and couldn’t quite come back at the end. Senior wide receiver and special teams co-captain Luke Tasker hauled in an eight-yard reception on the first play from scrimmage but fumbled immediately afterwards when hit by Rams junior cornerback Ian Williams, leading to a 30-yard field goal from senior kicker Patrick Murray and a 3-0 lead for the hosts. Tasker also fumbled the opening kickoff of last season’s finale at Penn, but he rebounded well in both games, finishing with 10 catches for 177 yards and a touchdown in this one.
“It’s tough,” Tasker said. “It wasn’t the first fumble of my career, but it’s a terrible way to start your team off [on] the first play of the whole season,” Tasker said. “I let [the game] get too big. I tried to make something happen after I caught that ball when the first thing on my mind should’ve been ball security … But honestly it wasn’t me bouncing back, it was the guys telling me to keep my head up and to keep going on.”
The Red defense yielded only one more 29-yard Murray field goal to the no-huddle Ram attack in the first half that increased the lead, 6-0, following Fordham’s longest drive of 12 plays and 68 yards. Hard-hitting senior linebacker and special teams co-captain Michael Hernandez laid out punishment on Fordham players four times before intermission. The young Red secondary also held its own for two quarters, including freshman cornerback Jarrod Watson-Lewis, who finished with a team-high nine tackles, broke up a long first-half would-be completion and drilled Higgins for Cornell’s only sack.
“[Watson-Lewis] is going to be a very good player,” Austin said. “When you play freshmen corners, they’re going to get picked on a little bit. And he needs to grow, like all of our players.”
After converting three third downs, Mathews tossed a 13-yard touchdown to Jesse Heon, the junior wide receiver’s second career catch, with 2:44 to play in the half. On the ensuing drive, Hernandez smacked Koonce for a big loss on third-and-2, forcing a punt and sending the visitors to the locker room with a 7-6 lead despite Tasker’s cough-up and a missed 27-yard field goal attempt from junior kicker John Wells.
Cornell junior safety Kevin Laird recorded the first interception of his career on a Higgins throw into triple coverage on the first play of the second half, but the Rams forced the Red into a three-and-out. The next time Mathews got his hands on the ball, though, he completed five-of-six passes and marched the team on an eight-play, 78-yard drive, culminating with the signal caller’s fourth career rushing touchdown on a one-yard push midway through the third quarter. The lead grew to 14-6, but Fordham soon broke through and wore down the Cornell defense with several big plays, which haunted the Red unit all of last season.
On second down of the next drive, Ram senior receiver Brian Wetzel beat the Cornell secondary and Higgins delivered a fine rainbow pass that went for 63 yards to the Cornell 15-yard line. Koonce burst up the right sideline to score on the next play, although the Red maintained its lead, 14-12, when Laird picked off the two-point conversion.
“We struggled a little bit in the second half stopping the run,” Austin said. “We gave up big plays again. [The defense] did get us turnovers — that was a real positive. I thought that [we] played well in the first half and kept [Fordham] out of the end zone. But [we] just didn’t hold up in the second half.”
Cornell couldn’t catch a break on its next possession when the referees initially called pass interference on third-and-10 but then determined the Mathews-to-Tasker attempt uncatchable. The Red punted, and on third-and-8 for the Rams, the Cornell defensive line flushed Higgins out of the pocket and barely missed a sack as the QB’s desperation throw landed in Wetzel’s arms for a 14-yard gain to the Cornell 38. Two plays later, Higgins hit freshman receiver Sam Ajala for a 35-yard touchdown over the middle and a two-point conversion that handed Fordham back the lead, 20-14, with 2:56 left in the quarter.
Next, the Red picked up three first downs and appeared on its way to wrestling back the advantage, but a false start and a sack of Mathews stalled the drive and Wells’ 50-yard field goal attempt fell well short. Cornell converted only one-of-seven third downs after halftime while the Rams succeeded on five-of-six.
“We didn’t do a great job on third downs,” Tasker said. “They were giving us man coverage for the majority of our downs, but third downs especially. We needed to be better at beating their man coverage. Even some of the short ones we missed on — some of the third-and-twos. That’s something we’re going to have to work on for next week.”
On the first play after Wells’ long try, Higgins completed a 47-yard bomb to senior wide receiver Greg Wilson. The Red stuffed Koonce on a few plays before Wetzel caught a short pass on third-and-12 and soared untouched behind a parade of blockers for a 23-yard score, extending the Fordham lead, 27-14, with 12 minutes left in the game. Weztel finished with eight receptions for 153 yards and the pivotal touchdown.
But Cornell wouldn’t go away quietly. Matthews again hit on five-of-six throws, including a gorgeous 40-yard loft to Tasker for a touchdown with 9:37 to play, cutting the deficit to 27-21. On the fourth play of Fordham’s next possession, Laird came down with a deflected Higgins pass for his second interception of the day, a turnover that had all of Jack Coffey Field holding its breath for what Mathews would do with the opportunity.
“The interceptions were actually just a product of the defense,” Laird said. “[On] the second one, [sophomore linebacker] Andrew Nelson made a great break on the ball and tipped it up. And it just so happened to tip in my direction, so I got under it and came down with it.”
Mathews started with a four-yard completion to Tasker to the Rams 44, but Fordham junior linebacker Jake Rodriques then bull-rushed the Ivy record-holder for a sack and 10-yard loss. After Mathews got six of the yards back on another throw to Tasker, Austin called timeout and elected to punt the ball on fourth-and-10 from just over midfield with 4:56 remaining, partly because senior center and offensive co-captain Bob Bullington — who had already broken his right wrist during the week and was snapping with his left hand in the game — suffered an injury on third down.
“Our center went out the play before,” Austin said. “We were going to go for it, but then I thought, at a critical play at that time with a brand new center, it [was] too risky. Trying to get  yards to get a first down — I just didn’t want to risk it. I thought we’d punt it deep and try to play defense.”
The Red defense couldn’t execute Austin’s plan, however, as it didn’t have an answer for Koonce. The agile tailback ran seven consecutive times for 56 yards and, aided by a couple of personal foul penalties, essentially iced the game with 54 seconds left on a 10-yard jolt into the end zone, wrapping up his 31-carry, 176-yard, two-score game.
Cornell then moved the ball downfield like it had all game, but it took too long. By the time Mathews found junior receiver Grant Gellatly for a neat 19-yard over-the-shoulder touchdown, the clock had expired, establishing the final score, a 34-27 Fordham victory.
Even though Gellatly’s score was in vain, the converted tailback had a phenomenal debut at receiver, racking up 181 yards on 10 receptions after recording 106 and eight, respectively, in the 2011 season-ending win over Penn. He displayed his running back skills by routinely shedding tacklers and finding his way to the first down marker, joining Tasker and senior wide receiver Kurt Ondash (10 catches, 92 yards) as a trio of Red pass-catchers who each tallied double-digit receptions.
“We knew at the end of last year that Grant was going to be a really productive player for us,” Austin said. “He’s got some explosiveness and some quickness that we’re lacking at times. And [he has] the ability to do things in traffic and he’s got great hands and the ability to get up-field. He’ll be a great weapon for us this year.”
With Yale set to visit Ithaca on Saturday at 1 p.m. for Cornell’s nationally televised Homecoming contest and its first League battle, the Red is already trying to get the tough defeat out of its rear-view mirror.
“[The second half] was really disappointing but it’s kind of like a measuring stick for us,” Laird said. “We came out and just saw where we were as a team … The effort [and] the intensity is all there.”
“We’re not going to dwell on this,” Tasker added. “We made some plays that made it look like we hadn’t played a game yet. We need to come out there this week and have three great practices and get ready to play because we’re excited.”