When Red junior safety Brian Gee corralled a deflected third-quarter pass for his first career interception, it looked like the Cornell football team might have turned what was a laugher into a nailbiter. But Harvard (4-0, 2-0 Ivy) proved it is still the class of the Ivy League by bookending two 21-0 scoring streaks in a critical early-season conference matchup to run away with a 45-13 victory on Saturday afternoon in Cambridge, Mass., its 13th win in a row.
Cornell (2-2, 1-1) received the opening kickoff like it has in all four games, but senior wide receiver Kurt Ondash continued a season-long team and individual bugaboo by dropping a pass on first down and freshman running back Luke Hagy fumbled on third down for the Red’s second opening-drive cough up of the year.
Just 15 minutes of play later, Harvard junior wide receiver Andrew Berg became the fourth-ever Crimson player to record three receiving touchdowns in a game, the first two by beating Red freshman cornerback Kendall Brown to the back of the end zone. Berg’s 15-yard catch in the first minute of the second quarter vaulted the hosts to a 21-0 cushion as Harvard senior quarterback Colton Chapple completed his first 12 passes. The Red offense countered those possessions with three punts.
“One drive is not going to kill you, you’ve got to stay in there,” said Cornell left tackle J.C. Tretter. “But we [started] piling up three and outs. You can’t do that — you need to gain some momentum right away.”
The defending Ivy Champs kept their early punch until junior wide receiver Ricky Zorn dropped a third-down pass in the end zone and junior kicker David Mothander missed wide right on the resulting 30-yard field goal attempt with 10:44 remaining until halftime.
Cornell junior quarterback and offensive co-captain Jeff Mathews then put the Red on the board with three straight completions — a 44-yard beauty to Hagy, a 19-yard post route to junior wide receiver Grant Gellatly and a three-yard touchdown toss to senior wide receiver and special teams co-captain Luke Tasker.
The Red defense stepped up to force consecutive three-and-outs, and Mathews and the receivers led another scoring drive. But this time a 12-yard loss on a double-reverse trick play forced the squad to settle for a 25-yard field goal from junior kicker John Wells and a 21-10 halftime deficit.
Mathews recorded a Cornell-record ninth career 300-yard game and moved into second all-time for career yardage, but the competitive gunslinger is not in a mood to rejoice.
“I didn’t make enough plays today,” the 2011 Ivy League Offensive Player of the Year said. “We had guys open and I didn’t make enough throws. We didn’t respond well today and I think a lot of that’s on my shoulders.”
On a warm and sunny day with strong winds, Cornell played solid defense in the middle two quarters with the breeze in Harvard’s face. The Red and Crimson traded field goals in the third for a 24-13 score, but when the teams again switched sides, the top-ranked offense in the Ancient Eight blew through the visitors in the final frame. Harvard gained 70 percent of its passing yards and scored 35 of its 45 points with the wind.
With 12:53 to go, Zorn fought to snatch a 24-yard touchdown pass over Brown, whom Chapple targeted all game long, to stretch the Crimson lead to 31-13 and add the straw that broke the camel’s back.
“Cornell is playing a lot of young guys in the secondary,” said Chapple, who improved to 10-0 as a starter with a 362-yard, four-score passing performance. “We knew that’s something we can exploit. Having the playmakers on the outside, it’s just a great matchup all around.”
“They made a lot more plays than we did,” added Cornell head coach Kent Austin. “Their receivers made some great catches. [When] the ball was thrown up, there [were] many times it was either guy’s ball and [Harvard] made the play and we didn’t. Give some credit to them.”
During a long-shot comeback attempt, Mathews threw his second and third interceptions of the season, leading to two more Crimson scores — a six-yard touchdown run by senior tailback Treavor Scales and a four-yard scoring sprint from Chapple. The latter came on a fourth-and-goal that put an exclamation point on a convincing 45-13 triumph.
Cornell in the first half contained Scales, the leading rusher in the Ivies in 2012, but the senior broke loose after the break to finish with 106 yards and a score on 21 carries. The Red defenders could not generate much pressure on Chapple despite the Crimson playing two backup offensive linemen, and when they did, the nimble signal caller scurried away, finishing with 53 rushing yards and a touchdown on nine attempts while avoiding a sack.
“You’ve got to give credit to the offensive line,” Chapple said. “I haven’t been touched in a few games [and] the amount of success we’re running the football with is something that’s very hard to defend.”
Harvard, meanwhile, sacked Mathews four times and hit him often to ensure the Crimson’s seventh straight win over Cornell. Mathews never fully got into a rhythm as he finished 20-of-41 passing, his lowest incompletion percentage since he posted the same numbers 51 weeks ago in an overtime loss at Colgate.
“Harvard has probably been most consistently the best defensive line we go against every year,” Tretter said. “They’re a talented group of guys [and] they’ve always been good. We got them sometimes, they got us other times. We’ve just got to do better.”
The Red must also figure out why its offensive execution in big moments has disappeared this season. Cornell converted only two-of-13 third downs against the Crimson, including one-of-six on third-and-5 or shorter. Austin said at least some of the misfiring was due to Harvard’s suffocating pass defense.
“Their secondary shut down most of our receivers most of the game — that’s the bottom line,” the third-year coach said. “Our production on first and second down needs to go way up. We’re not very good right now offensively in scoring territory. We’ve got to get to the bottom of that.”
A bad omen for Cornell’s receiving corps is the apparent limitations of fifth-year senior Shane Savage’s injured leg. The Ivy’s triple-crown winner from 2011 gave it a go after missing all but the first series of the season opener on Sept. 15, but he didn’t look even close to 100 percent healthy. Savage couldn’t come down with a Mathews hurl in garbage time as multiple defenders hit him to end his streak of 31 consecutive games with a reception, second best in program history.
Still, the group posted decent results. Tasker finished with eight catches for 87 yards and the Red’s only touchdown of the game. Gellatly added 111 yards on six receptions, while Hagy shook off the fumble to tally 25 rushing and 77 receiving yards.
The Red returns home to wrap up its non-conference schedule on Saturday at 12:30 p.m. versus Monmouth in the first-ever meeting between the schools. While the lopsided loss to the Ivy favorite was disappointing and may have dented Cornell’s title hopes, the club has no choice but to move forward.
“Our team will be defined by what we do these next six games,” Tretter said. “It will be nice to get back in front of the Schoellkopf crowd. We’ll refocus this week. We’re going to come out with fire and we’ll be ready to go.”