This loss may sting for a while. Brown’s fifth-string running back rushed for nearly 200 yards and two touchdowns. Penalties and negative plays in scoring territory moved Cornell backwards instead of forwards, again. Last season’s Ivy League Offensive Player of the Year threw three interceptions at critical moments. In the end, it all amounted to a 21-14 bounce-back victory for the Brown football team (4-2, 1-2 Ivy League) over Cornell (3-3, 1-2) on Saturday afternoon in Providence, R.I.
Cornell received the opening kickoff for the sixth time in six games this year and, for the sixth time, did not score. Shortly after the Red punted, its defensive line over-pursued Brown quarterback Patrick Donnelly in the backfield and the senior swept left before cutting 26 yards up the field for a touchdown and a 7-0 Bears lead midway through the first quarter.
“We have to stop coming out flat,” said Cornell sophomore linebacker Taylor Betros, who finished with eight tackles and an interception of Donnelly. “We’ve got to hammer them on the first drive — that’s the most important drive of the game.”
In the beginning of the second quarter, Cornell’s offense created a fourth-and-1 at the Brown 38-yard line, but a false start backed the Red up five yards — its first of two such fourth-and-short miscues. Red sophomore punter Sam Wood came on to pin the Bears on their 9, his second of three first-half punts downed inside the 13-yard line. Cornell, though, couldn’t benefit from its field position advantage as the offense failed to cash in and Brown continued to march into Red territory.
“Brown did a great job offensively moving the ball,” said Cornell head coach Kent Austin. “They’re big and strong up front — they knock you off the line of scrimmage. They controlled the clock on us. We got up the field every time, but they flipped the field back on us.”
Brown opened the door for Cornell by missing a 43-yard field goal try with 4:18 to go in the first half, and the Red then moved across midfield. But the drive stalled after another false start and sack of junior quarterback and offensive co-captain Jeff Mathews, who lost 12 yards and fumbled before junior left guard Brad Wagner recovered.
“They pressured Jeff, but Jeff held onto the ball too long — he had opportunities to get the ball out of his hands,” Austin said. “I thought for most of the game we protected Jeff pretty well, considering the pressures that [Brown has gotten] on teams throughout the course of their season.”
Cornell was fortunate that Brown sophomore running back Jordan Reisner did not turn a 51-yard jolt on the last play of the half into seven points, as sophomore cornerback Michael Turner and sophomore safety Rush Miller converged on the reserve tailback at the 18-yard line to save a touchdown. Brown shut out the Red before intermission and led 7-0.
“I think the story of the game was our defense,” said Brown’s 15-year head coach Phil Estes. “We made them grind for every yard they got. [We had] a little bit of bend, but we certainly didn’t break.”
The Cornell defense did some work of its own on the first drive of the second half. Freshman linebacker Mike Tate forced a fumble that junior linebacker and defensive co-captain Brett Buehler picked up and returned 32 yards down to the Brown 14.
On third-and-goal from the 4, the referees bailed out Cornell with a pass interference call and freshman running back Luke Hagy took a shotgun handoff to the right side for a 2-yard touchdown on the next play, knotting the score at 7-all. Six plays into Brown’s next possession, though, Keisner ran it up the gut and shed several tackles on his way to a 27-yard scoring burst as the Cornell defense was unable to maintain its mojo from Tate and Buehler’s big turnover on the prior series.
“We’re getting turnovers this year, but we’re also giving up big plays,” Austin said. “We have to learn to continue to hold onto a little bit of momentum that we get. We’re asking some young guys to play at a pretty high level right now. And they’ll keep coming — they’ll mature.”
“We just missed way too many tackles,” Betros added. “From a defensive standpoint, to me, that’s it. We were in the right defenses most of the time, [but] we’ve all got to tackle better.”
Cornell suffered its second fourth-and-short false start on the next drive from Brown’s 21, and junior kicker John Wells missed wide left on the ensuing 44-yard field goal attempt with 5:40 to go in the third quarter. Betros hauled in his first career pick shortly after on a poor decision from Donnelley, but Mathews handed the ball right back by airmailing a pass into the arms of Brown senior cornerback A.J. Cruz on third-and-18 following a sack.
The teams traded short possessions before Brown moved the chains three times and Reisner easily sliced through a handful of missed tackles for a 49-yard touchdown run three minutes into the final quarter, increasing the lead, 21-7.
“I get offended if someone arm tackles me, so that’s never going to happen,” Reisner said.
A fifth-string running back in the preseason with only three snaps of collegiate experience heading into Saturday’s contest, Reisner finished with 193 yards and two scores on 22 carries.
“Needless to say, Jordan picked everything up and really had an outstanding game,” said Estes, who called upon Reisner because injuries have depleted the Bears running corps. “We’ve always felt like Jordan had the talent and this was the opportunity for him to get it done.”
A leaping 15-yard catch on fourth-and-5 by senior wide receiver and special teams captain Luke Tasker kept the Red’s next drive alive at the Brown 31. After Cornell earned a first-and-goal at the 7, though, Mathews forced a pass into traffic that Bears senior linebacker Stephen Zambetti intercepted in the end zone with 7:38 remaining.
“Jeff pressed in scoring territory way too much,” Austin said. “You’ve got to let the game come to you. About half our games this year we [commit] a comedy of errors in scoring territory.”
“We moved the ball well between the 20s but when we got in the red zone, we just made too many mistakes and that really cost us,” added senior wide receiver Kurt Ondash, who finished with 12 catches for 147 yards.
The Red offense did not err the next time it got a chance, converting two fourth downs on an 11-play drive, including a four-yard touchdown delivery from Mathews to Ondash with 2:54 to play that cut the deficit to 21-14. The defense stymied Brown for a three-and-out after a failed onside kick, giving Cornell an opportunity to drive 79 yards for a potential tying score with 1:16 left on the clock but no timeouts.
After junior wide receiver Grant Gellatly snatched a 12-yard catch, however, Mathews threw three straight incompletions. And on fourth-and-10 from the Red 33, Brown junior cornerback Emory Polley jumped in front of a Gellatly route to pick off Mathews with 50 ticks remaining, preserving the 21-14 Brown victory.
“It’s a tough situation when they obviously know we’re going to pass,” Ondash said. “They were kind of forcing our hand there and we just didn’t get it done.”
Mathews compiled 357 yards on 31-of-58 passing in his return from a neck injury, the 10th 300-yard game of his career, but he also threw his second-ever three-interception game. After a hot start to 2012, Mathews has completed only 53 percent of his passes for two touchdowns and six picks in his last three starts.
Donnelly, meanwhile, completed 19-of-26 passes for 189 yards. The senior’s efficiency, minus one blunder on the throw directly to Betros, jumpstarted a Brown offense that was shut out in its previous game at Princeton.
“I thought Patrick played terrific,” Estes said. “We sat down Friday just to talk about his demeanor and Patrick said, ‘I’m pissed off.’ And I said, ‘Well, is that going to affect you in the game?’ He said, ‘Yeah, I play better pissed off.’ And I said, ‘Then damn it, let’s get pissed off.’”
The Bears opponent is probably the pissed off team now. An offseason that offered such promise for the Red has evolved into what seems like the same story every loss — failed execution (1-of-13 on third downs), penalties (six for 55 yards) and lackluster run defense (263 yards allowed). Ondash believes the squad still has time to fix its flaws and right the ship.
“We finally have some home games coming up, and four Ivy opponents left,” he said. “We’re just looking to go on a run and finish this season off right — trying to get 4 'W's.”