The Cornell football team will have a role in determining the 2012 Ivy League Champion after all, but not the way the Red had hoped. Tomorrow at 12:30 p.m. on Schoellkopf Field, Cornell (4-5, 2-4 Ivy) aims to end a disappointing season by playing spoiler on Senior Day against rival Penn (5-4, 5-1), who can clinch its third outright conference title in four years with a win.
The Red’s inconsistent year reached rock bottom last weekend when hapless Columbia forced four second-half turnovers and scored 27 unanswered points to roll to a 34-17 victory in Manhattan, N.Y. Penn, on the other hand, earned at least a share of the Ancient Eight crown with a thorough 30-21 home win over preseason favorite Harvard.
The Quakers, under Football Championship Subdivision’s winningest active coach Al Bagnoli, are not satisfied with just tying for the title, especially since a little revenge is on the line. Cornell handed the current Penn senior class its only ever home loss with last year’s 48-38 season-ending triumph in Philadelphia, Pa.
“We all know that Penn remembers that we beat them on their home field,” said Cornell junior defensive end and defensive co-captain Tre’ Minor. “So we need to make sure that we can just keep the energy up that we had last year and still make sure that we have something to play for.”
Cornell has the same goals tomorrow as it had when entering the 2011 finale, namely a .500 record and a farewell win for its seniors. Due to the club’s high expectations for 2012, the team probably feels more discouraged now than at this time last year, but senior wide receiver and special teams co-captain Luke Tasker said the battle with the Quakers still offers a significant opportunity.
“This season has had its ups and downs, but it’s been a rewarding process and it would just mean the most for me and the  other seniors to go out on top this week,” said Tasker, who set the program’s single-season receiving yardage record (1,097) in the loss to the Lions. “It’s just about making the most of the last opportunity as a class with this team and this group of guys.”
“We’re really trying to dedicate this one to our seniors,” Minor added.
Penn, meanwhile, has the championship on its mind, though the Quakers’ quest for sole possession of Ivy bling is in the hands of senior backup quarterback Andrew Holland. Senior Billy Ragone had started 25 consecutive games before injuring his ankle against the Crimson, but his absence may not deliver as big of a blow as the Red would like. Holland has played in every game this season, completing 63 percent of his passes for 572 yards and four touchdowns and, in fact, a better passing efficiency than Ragone.
Ragone was Penn’s leading rusher though. Senior running backs Lyle Marsh (6-0, 235 lbs.) and Jeff Jack (5-11, 215), who have combined for 804 yards and four touchdowns on the ground, look to pick up the slack in a powerful Quakers offense.
“Penn is big and physical — they’ve always been big and physical,” Minor said. “They have really big running backs, they have a really big offensive line and they’re just athletic everywhere. They’re really disciplined, so we’re going to have to focus on execution and being able to stop the run.”
Limiting Penn’s rushing attack would also put Cornell’s young secondary in the comfort zone it was in during the first half against the Lions. Freshman cornerback Jarrod-Watson Lewis recorded the first two interceptions of his career and junior defensive lineman Kevin Marchand snatched another pick before halftime last Saturday to help the Red build a 17-10 lead.
Speaking of interceptions, Cornell threw three more last week to bring its season total to 12 and spur its second-half collapse in the 17-point defeat. Junior quarterback and offensive co-captain Jeff Mathews completed 12-of-25 passes for 140 yards, a touchdown and a pick that went through Tasker’s hands before senior backup Chris Amrhein took over in the fourth quarter.
But Amrhein could not save the team like he did a month before in a win over Monmouth when Mathews was injured. The senior completed just 3-of-13 throws for 10 yards and two interceptions. The Red turned the ball over four times and went three-and-out twice in seven possessions after intermission. Cornell has committed nine giveaways in the last two games.
The Red offense must be squeaky clean to pull off the upset and prevent a three-game losing streak to end the season. A perennially strong Penn defense has recorded 11 interceptions in 2012 and the Quakers held Harvard's offensive machine to 295 yards while tallying six sacks. Tasker praised the visitors’ defense but insisted that Cornell’s approach remain the same.
“They have a good defensive line and a good pass rush,” Tasker said. “They’re smart players and they play their defense the way they want to. But if we start hurrying, that’s when things are going to start falling apart. They’re going to make their plays, too, and after that the most important thing is the next play and getting back on track. We just need to keep the ball in our hands and move the ball a little better than we have the past two weeks.”
Bagnoli seeks Penn’s ninth outright Ivy title in his 21 seasons. The Quakers hope to wrap up their championship season in the same fashion they won their most recent crown — a November 2010 pummeling of the Red in Ithaca, 28-10. If that happens, the Penn senior class would exit with a 24-4 career record against Ivy squads.
On the other side of the fifth-most played rivalry in college football, Cornell has zero outright titles in its history, a sting that will persist for at least another year. As consolation, a last-stand victory against the Quakers could force a three-way tie for the championship between Penn, Princeton and Harvard — which includes two teams the Red would have beaten.
“It’s not as good as being the Ivy League Champs, but not many people can say [they were] 2-1 against the Ivy League Champs — we beat Princeton, if we win we’ll have beaten Penn and we lost to Harvard,” Minor said. “Even though it’s not really an improvement from last year because we’ll still end up being 5-5, we’ll have proven that we can play with the top teams.”
Perhaps spending two years competing with the top teams will soon enough catapult the Red towards being one of the top teams.