“We preach [that] if a guy goes down, the next guy’s got to step up,” said Cornell junior quarterback and offensive co-captain Jeff Mathews. On Saturday afternoon at Schoellkopf Field, just about everyone stepped up for the Red (1-1, 1-0 Ivy League) as it dominated Yale (1-1, 0-1) in all three phases of the game to down the Bulldogs, 45-6, on national television. Playing without the Ivy’s triple-crown wide receiver (fifth-year senior Shane Savage) and one of the team’s best defenders (senior linebacker and special teams co-captain Michael Hernandez), the hosts put on a show before 15,333 fans in a Homecoming blowout that was uncompetitive by halftime.
Mathews completed 29-of-39 passes despite a handful of drops, finishing with 340 yards and four touchdowns. It was the reigning Ivy League Offensive Player of the Year’s fourth consecutive 300-yard game dating back to last season and the eighth of his career, tying the Cornell record. Mathews has thrown one interception and 17 touchdowns in his last 186 pass attempts, completing 76 percent of them for nearly 1,900 yards.
The Red offense also enjoyed a breath of fresh air from freshman running back Luke Hagy, who carried 21 times for 88 yards and his first two career touchdowns in addition to 69 receiving yards on five catches. Head coach Kent Austin lauded the two-time Pittsburgh Male Athlete of the Year, whom the Red hopes will spark a ground game that ranked last in the Ancient Eight in 2010 and 2011.
“Luke is mature beyond his age,” Austin said. “He’s grounded, he’s mature, he doesn’t get flustered [and] he’s kind of unflappable. He has to do a lot in our offense because we use him as a receiver as well.”
Speaking of unflappable, a maligned Cornell defense was all over the field and made all the plays, holding Yale to 350 yards of total offense, forcing two turnovers and preventing the Bulldogs from entering the red zone at any time in the first half. The Red, donning 1930s throwback uniforms, would have recorded its first shutout since 1993 if it weren’t for a fourth-and-goal touchdown pass by Yale freshman quarterback Eric Williams with 7.3 seconds left in the third quarter.
Sophomore linebacker Andrew Nelson, Hernandez’s replacement, set the tone early by sniffing out a bubble screen and intercepting Williams on Yale’s first offensive play after a fourth-down incompletion by the Red. On first down of the next drive, Hagy ran wide and stretched out for the pylon on an 11-yard score as Cornell drew first blood to lead, 7-0, firing up the Homecoming crowd.
“I had a little bit of a hint that [Yale freshman running back Tyler Varga] was going to get the ball,” said Nelson, who tallied 55 tackles and a pick last season. “Our offense doesn’t need a short field, but when we give them that, we feel good about it.”
Later in the first quarter, Yale senior wide receiver Cameron Sandquist muffed a punt return and Red sophomore long snapper Dylan Chayes recovered. Mathews immediately placed a perfect 14-yard pass into the outstretched hands of senior wide receiver and special teams co-captain Luke Tasker, who dragged his feet inbounds for Cornell’s second straight one-play scoring drive and a 14-0 advantage with 3:37 to go in the opening quarter. Tasker finished with 10 catches for 138 yards and two scores.
“We really defended the pass well, and more importantly, we were able to get turnovers,” Austin said. “That was really the difference in the first half — we were able to get the turnovers and we protected the football.”
After Tasker’s touchdown, sophomore safety Rush Miller and a herd of Cornell defenders denied Varga on fourth-and-1 from the Cornell 36-yard line. Miller finished with six tackles while freshman cornerback Jarrod Watson-Lewis had a team-high for the second week in a row with 11 stops.
“Our coaches put together a great game plan for us,” Nelson said. “We just executed our assignments. Last week sometimes we had some missed assignments, some missed tackles and this week a big thing was we gang tackled. Yale has great running backs and we swarmed them and did a great job tackling.”
Hagy continued to carve through the Bulldog defense, and on the seventh play of the next drive, the rookie scored his second touchdown of the contest from four yards out, launching the Red to a 21-0 lead early in the second quarter. Several minutes later, Cornell senior defensive end Emmitt Terrell pressured Williams into an ill-advised throw that sophomore cornerback Michael Turner picked off — the fifth interception of the Yale signal caller’s young career.
On the ensuing Red possession, Mathews squirted forward to convert a fourth-and-inches before throwing a five-yard touchdown to senior wide receiver Kurt Ondash, who redeemed himself for committing a few early gaffes and then some. The senior hauled in another short score to balloon the Cornell lead, 35-0, with 1:29 left in the half and he ended with six snags for 61 yards. Yale senior kicker Philippe Panico missed wide right on two 40-yard-plus field goal attempts in the final minutes, sending the Red well on its way to a complete Homecoming victory for the second year in a row.
In the second half, all that could disappoint the Cornell faithful was the gloomy sky and on-and-off drizzle. The Red defense forced three-and-outs on Yale’s first two drives, leading to a 21-yard hookup from Mathews to Tasker and a whopping 42-0 lead with 3:43 remaining in the third quarter.
Varga, who finished with 91 yards on 13 carries, then propelled Yale on its lone scoring drive of the afternoon. The Bulldogs’ two-point conversion failed, making their six points the fewest total a Cornell team has surrendered this century. Red freshman kicker Boomer Olsen booted the squad’s first successful field goal of the season from 22 yards out with 8:25 to play, establishing the final score, 45-6.
The 39-point destruction is Cornell’s widest margin of victory since a 50-point win over Georgetown on Oct. 15, 2005 and the largest in conference since a 41-0 shutout at Columbia on Nov. 10, 1990 — the year the Red last shared a League title.
“Kudos to our staff — they really prepared our guys well,” Austin said. “This was one of our better weeks of practice that we’ve had in a long time. The credit really needs to go to [our staff with] the way our guys came out — they were prepared to play [and] they played with a lot of energy.”
The Cornell offensive line also deserves credit for controlling the line of scrimmage and allowing only one sack of Mathews, as senior center and offensive co-captain Bob Bullington continued to snap well with his left hand due to his broken and casted right wrist. Cornell dominated time of possession, 35:34 to 24:26.
“Up front, those guys were unbelievable,” Mathews said. “[Last weekend the Fordham] defense dictated their pressure up front so we ended up throwing the ball a little bit more. This week, a very good rushing attack, especially early on … was huge for us. [Tasker] had a lot of catches inside the hashes and that’s where we want to win the game.”
The sweetest surprise for the Red, though, was the defensive showing after a dubious second half in the season opener. Coordinator Kim Dameron lit a fire under the players during the week and Nelson said he didn’t doubt for one second that his unit would respond against Yale.
“Our defense has a lot of character,” he said. “[We] showed that we can step up when we need to. We didn’t see [Homecoming] as a distraction — we saw it as an opportunity. And we made the most of our opportunity.”
That the Red did. But the veteran team knows its steamrolling of the Bulldogs was only one game. Cornell ventures back out of the Ivies with a matchup at long-time rival Bucknell on Saturday under the lights.
“We should be very proud of how we played,” Mathews said. “But on the same note, we need to know that we’ve got to build off this and get better for next week.”