For a refreshing change of pace, the defense pulled out a wild win for the Cornell football team on Saturday night at Bucknell, 15-10. Despite an out-of-whack offense and inept special teams, the Red (2-1, 1-1 Ivy League) topped the Bison (1-3, 0-1 Patriot League) in Lewisburg, Pa., thanks to timely fourth-quarter defensive stands and an impressive overall defensive performance for the second consecutive week.
On fourth-and-9 from the Cornell 14-yard line, Bucknell junior quarterback Brandon Wesley scrambled to buy time before lobbing a potential game-winning pass into the end zone that Red sophomore cornerback Michael Turner broke up with 40 seconds remaining. The Red took over and knelt once, escaping Christy Mathewson-Memorial Stadium with an up-and-down victory.
“We just stuck together, we just played hard and we never quit,” said Turner, who filled in for suspended freshman cornerback Jarrod Watson-Lewis and finished with seven tackles.
The Cornell defense also kept the Bison out of the end zone on its previous two possessions in an eight-point game. On Bucknell’s first drive of the fourth quarter, Cornell junior safety Brian Gee broke up two long on-target passes and sophomore safety Rush Miller delivered a fine tackle to force a fourth-down punt from the Cornell 43.
After an uncharacteristic Red three-and-out, the Bison started with excellent field position at the Cornell 38-yard line and moved towards the end zone, but on third-and-goal from the 4, senior defensive end Hugh Stewart ripped down Wesley for a sack and eight-yard loss. Bucknell junior kicker Sean Cobelli came on to hit a 29-yard field goal with 5:14 to go, cutting the lead to 15-10.
Those would be the Bison’s last points, however. Cornell head coach Kent Austin marveled at his defense that bent but didn’t break — and it didn’t bend much, surrendering only 286 yards of total offense.
“Thank goodness our defense is playing really well right now — they really came through [and] made so many plays,” Austin said. “So many different guys stepped into different roles and really answered the call for us … Good football teams are going to make plays in the course of the game. The issue is, ‘Can you keep them out of the end zone?’ And we’re doing that right now.”
The Cornell offense, though, didn’t reach the end zone as much as it is accustomed to. Ending a streak of 10 straight games with at least 24 points, the prolific attack suffered from miscommunications, false starts and failed executions in scoring territory. The biggest issue was the absence of senior center and offensive co-captain Bob Bullington, as star junior quarterback and offensive co-captain Jeff Mathews repeatedly fielded low or rolling snaps that hampered the line’s protection and affected the whole unit’s timing.
Under constant pressure, Mathews finished with 278 yards on 27-of-46 passing and his first interception in a school-record 143 attempts, but the humble 2011 Ivy League Offensive Player of the Year isn’t looking for excuses or pointing fingers.
“Snaps are one thing, but I don’t think it’s that big of a deal,” Mathews said. “You’ve got to make a play when you have the opportunity — I thought we had guys open and missed a couple of them. Offensively we didn’t play well, but it’s awesome when you don’t play well to build off a win and not a loss.”
The win seemed almost assured based on a peek at the box score at intermission. The Red gained 213 yards compared to Bucknell’s 121 before halftime and converted 16 first downs versus the Bison’s five, while the visitors possessed the ball for more than 11 of the second quarter’s 15 minutes. Cornell senior wide receiver and special teams co-captain Luke Tasker had seven catches for 69 yards while fellow senior wide out Kurt Ondash chipped in five first-half receptions for 68 yards.
However, the receivers still dropped several passes, Cornell junior kicker John Wells missed a 22-yard field goal try and the Red botched an extra point attempt following Mathews’ second one-yard rushing touchdown of the season with 9:31 to go in the half. A marathon drive of 16 plays and 74 yards on Cornell’s next possession had to end with a 28-yard field goal from freshman kicker Boomer Olsen in the final minute, which handed the visitors a 9-7 lead at half.
“We didn’t execute really well,” Austin said. “At the end of the day, we dropped two touchdown passes and left eight points on the field with [missed] extra points and field goals.”
“Obviously we’ve got to clean up some things in the kicking game, but if we go down and score touchdowns, that’s not an issue right now,” said Mathews, who had his first touchdown-less game since the second-to-last outing of his freshman season. “We had a lot of opportunities [but] we didn’t capitalize offensively on those opportunities.”
In the third quarter, the Red did enjoy one special teams gem. On fourth-and-2 from the Bucknell 47-yard line, Cornell lined up in punting formation, but sophomore punter and third-string quarterback Sam Wood instead tossed a short pass to safety Kevin Laird. The junior turned the fake into a 21-yard gain up the left sideline, although he lay on the field for several moments before hobbling to the sideline and appearing seriously injured.
A relentless Bucknell defense killed the second life of that drive, as well, when Mathews had no chance on fourth-and-4 from the Bison 20-yard line because the snap rolled past him. The next time the Red offense saw the ball, however, freshman running back Silas Nacita sidestepped defenders for a 24-yard touchdown dash and his first career score. The nifty run on the first play of the fourth quarter gave the visitors their final points and a 15-7 advantage, but they failed on the extra point to keep it a one-score game.
Bucknell returned the favor from the second quarter as the Bison possessed the ball for 10:49 in the final frame and forced the Red to play 27 downs on defense. Cornell was up for the challenge, ensuring a road victory and a 2-1 record despite its static offense, though the hosts certainly had a role in making life hard for the nation’s second-best passing attack in front of 3,417 spectators.
“A lot of credit to Bucknell,” Austin said. “I told [Bucknell head coach Joe Susan] before the game [that] we’ve got a lot of respect for that football team. They play hard, they play to win every snap and we knew it was going to be a tough game.”
Welsey finished a steady 19-of-29 for 135 passing yards, but the Red defense held the mobile signal caller in check on the ground, squashing him for only six rushing yards after allowing only four last year. Junior linebacker and defensive co-captain Brett Buehler led the charge with nine tackles, while Miller finished with eight and Turner and sophomore linebacker Andrew Nelson recorded seven apiece.
The lone defensive blemish was a 63-yard run up the sideline by Bucknell junior running back Charles Thompson late in the first quarter that led to the Bison’s only touchdown of the game. Cornell, following a 45-6 Homecoming walkover against Yale, held back-to-back opponents to 10 points or fewer each for the first time since Nov. 2005 — when the program did so in three straight contests.
“When our defense is playing as well as they have the last couple weeks, they’re able to win games for us,” Mathews said. “That was unbelievable to see those guys step up and play really well for us the last two weeks, and they’ll continue that. Offensively we’ve just got to get better.”
That sure sounds strange considering the program’s recent past, but Austin said he believes the down-to-the-wire victory creates team toughness no matter which side of the ball deserves the credit.
“It was just such a great game for us to be able to build character from,” the third-year head coach said.
The Red will need fortitude on Saturday when the squad visits Ivy preseason favorite and defending champion Harvard in its third road contest in four games to start the year. Cornell hopes to be closer to full strength when Bullington, Watson-Lewis, fifth-year senior wide receiver Shane Savage and potentially others return for a showdown that could go a long way towards determining the 2012 Ivy Champion.
“We have a lot of confidence, but there’s always room to improve,” Turner said. “We’re just looking forward to getting better for next week.”