Cornell junior quarterback and offensive co-captain Jeff Mathews said last month that senior Chris Amrhein is a capable backup, and he sure meant it. A spectacular 523-yard fill-in performance from Amrhein, a school record 280 receiving yards from senior wide receiver and special teams co-captain Luke Tasker and four rushing touchdowns by freshman running back Silas Nacita put the Red (3-2, 1-1 Ivy League) back on track Saturday with a 41-38 shootout win over Monmouth (3-3, 2-1 Northeast Conference) on Schoellkopf Field.
Amrhein smoothed out some offensive wrinkles by completing 33-of-56 passes and throwing a 21-yard touchdown to Tasker, as the duo found holes in the Monmouth secondary all afternoon. Entering the game with nine career passing yards, Amrhein nearly quadrupled that number on the first play from scrimmage with a pinpoint 34-yard heave to a diving Tasker.
Amrhein never looked back, making the smart and simple throws early in the game to set up big chunks later. He registered the second-highest single-game passing mark in Cornell history behind Mathews’ 548 in last year’s finale at Penn. It was the fourth passing output of at least 489 yards in the Red’s last seven contests dating back to 2011.
“Coach [Kent Austin] just told me to stick with my reads [and] if they’re giving up the underneath routes, to take them,” the senior who may have a fifth year of eligibility said. “They were helping open up deeper routes too.”
The decision to hold out Mathews didn’t come until Saturday morning. The 2011 Ivy League Offensive Player of the Year, who started 23 straight games and had played in all 24 contests since arriving at Cornell, suffered an unspecified neck injury is last week’s loss at Harvard and remains day-to-day. Mathews had 862 more pass attempts of collegiate experience than Amrhein before the battle against the Hawks, but Tasker said he couldn’t tell much of a difference.
“Chris was prepared. He was ready to go mentally with the film and he’s got a strong arm,” said Tasker, who caught 11 balls and became the sixth-ever Cornellian with 2,000 career receiving yards. “It’s as if we didn’t have a backup in there. He was ready to take over the game and he did.”
“For a guy that hasn’t played to execute at the level that he executed is a credit to him and his preparation and to our staff to know what he does well,” Austin added.
Monmouth’s signal caller, senior Kyle Frazier, was also sharp as neither defense offered many answers after the first quarter. Frazier connected on 35-of-45 throws for 451 yards and four touchdowns while a committee of rushers, including the team-leading Frazier, contributed 151 yards on the ground. A budding Cornell defense has allowed 1,146 yards and 83 points in its last two outings, albeit against two excellent offenses.
“[Monmouth] is a good offense — they always have been,” said junior linebacker and defensive co-captain Brett Buehler, who had a monster game with 13 tackles, a sack and a forced fumble. “They have two really good running backs [and] their quarterback is a good runner [who] makes his reads on the run. Of course we expected to shut them down, but we knew they had the ability to do what they did.”
Four plays after Buehler knocked the ball loose from Monmouth senior tight end Tyler George, Nacita put the first points on the board with a one-yard sneak off a direct snap in the final minute of the opening quarter. The “Silas-cat” formation worked throughout the contest, helping the rookie became the first Red player since 1983 to score four rushing touchdowns in a game, none longer than six yards.
Cornell led at halftime, 17-14, despite surrendering an 85-yard touchdown strike from Frazier to wide-open senior flanker Tristan Roberts and having a 19-yard passing score of its own called back due to a holding penalty.
The referees flagged the Red for holding four times before intermission, but the Cornell offensive line — with freshman center Zach Wilk admirably replacing injured senior offensive co-captain Bob Bullington — was otherwise flawless in pass protection. The men up front provided Amrhein several seconds on each play to move around the pocket, scan the defense and improvise.
“[The offensive line] did an unbelievable job,” Amrhein, who was sacked once, said. “They’re a great group of guys. They kept me off my butt for most of the game. Hats off to them.”
Monmouth was stuck playing catch up for most of the matchup, though the Hawks did take their first lead of the day with a 28-yard field goal in the last minute of the third quarter. Amrhein didn’t seem to mind on the ensuing drive, placing two beautiful throws into Tasker’s hands — a 37-yarder on a play-action fake and a 41-yarder over the middle.
The second catch broke the previous Cornell single-game receiving record of 204 yards, but the referees inexplicably called Tasker down on the one-yard line when it appeared that he stretched a few yards deep into the end zone. Nacita made it a moot point by cashing in his first of three fourth-quarter touchdown gallops to hand the Red back the advantage, 27-23, with 14:03 remaining in the game.
“As a receiving corps, we were on-point today,” Tasker said after a reviving sure-handed performance by the Red pass-catchers. Senior wide receiver Kurt Ondash had an effective six grabs for 66 yards while freshman running back Luke Hagy caught five passes for 54 and junior receiver Grant Gellatly pitched in three receptions for 62. Amrhein connected with a season-high eight different receivers, the most since the Red’s blowout of Wagner on Oct. 1 of last year.
Freshman defensive lineman Logan Murphy recorded his first of two sacks on third-and-8 to end a short Monmouth possession, then yet another Amrhein-Tasker hookup over the top of the defense brought Cornell near the goal-line. Nacita ran it in from three yards out to stretch the lead to 11 points with 10:35 to play.
Once Monmouth sophomore wide receiver Eric Sumlin responded with a 28-yard sliding catch in the front of the end zone on third-and-13 (plus a two-point conversion), Nacita capped off his four-score game with a six-yard prance that put the Red up, 41-31, with 4:15 to go.
The Hawks gave themselves one last shot with just over a minute left on the clock when 6-4, 235-pound sophomore receiver Neal Sterling dragged Cornell freshman safety James White on his back for the last 10 yards of a 25-yard score.
“We’re young on defense — it’s a challenge for us,” Austin said. “But really, it’s a credit to their offense … We could play better obviously.”
But Ondash then made two plays to ice the game and complete his rebound performance after Harvard shut him down for no catches. The senior recovered Monmouth’s ensuing onsides kick, and on third-and-6 from the Hawks’ 38, he caught a pass from Amrhein and made it up the left sideline just enough to pick up the first down, run out the clock and send the visitors back to West Long Branch, New Jersey, with a 41-38 defeat.
Cornell entered the contest converting only 33 percent of its third downs, but a cool Amrhein and his fellow playmakers moved the chains on 10-of-17 as Mathews coached from the sideline.
“I like to say I’m his eyes when he’s on the field [and] he’s my eyes,” Amrhein said. “He was helping me with everything — walking me through reads and helping me get shortcuts on coverages and what not.”
“Jeff and Chris are both lights out,” Austin noted. “They support each other, they want each other to do well and they don’t care who gets the credit.”
Back above .500, Cornell enters the second half of its 2012 schedule, all against Ivy squads, at Brown on Saturday. The team hits the road for the fourth time in its first six weeks of the season to play the Bears, whom Princeton shut out in a surprising 19-0 win over the weekend.
“I wouldn’t say we get more prepared or more anything [for an Ivy game], but there’s different air around it,” Buehler said. “It’s always a bigger game. It just feels better.”