October 11, 2000

Play It Again, Joe

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Attaching a superlative like greatest or best to anything the 2000 Cornell football team does is always a difficult task, because you never know when it’s going to top it.

After what could have been labeled the “best comeback” in the “most important game of the year” two weekends ago against a talented Yale squad picked as co-favorites for the Ivy League, the Big Red managed to one-up itself this past weekend, coming back from a 28-0 deficit at the half to shock the Harvard Crimson, 29-28.

The game was a tale of two halves, as the Crimson opened the contest by dominating Cornell in virtually every facet of the game. The Crimson opened the contest by marching 77 yards in nine plays to take a 7-0 lead 4:12 into the game.

The possession was marked by a bizarre play that turned into a big advantage for Harvard. After Neil Rose completed a 27-yard pass to junior wide receiver Dan Farley, senior Jimmy Vattes jarred the ball loose. The football squirted forward 20-yards before it was finally recovered by the Crimson’s Sam Taylor at the Cornell two-yard line. Two plays later Rose ran in a quarterback sneak for the first of his three touchdowns on the day.

Cornell’s offense showed signs of struggling from the outset. Junior quarterback Ricky Rahne was anything but crisp in the first half, going 6-of-21 for 49 yards as he had trouble hitting his receivers and his receivers had a similarly hard time holding onto the ball.

“I wasn’t a very good football player in the first half,” Rahne said after the game, but added, “The coaches and players have confidence in me that I can bring them back.”

Junior running back Evan Simmons and the ground game were ineffective as well. Simmons showed flashes of brilliance, especially in his 33-yard run to the outside of the Crimson defense, but it was apparent that the junior was nowhere near 100% on the day. He appeared winded and tired after each play he was in, and left in the second half after a difficult day of trying to pick his way through Harvard’s eight-man fronts. He finished the day with 41 yards on 10 carries.

The Cornell offense sputtered during the first half, going three-and-out on six of its first eight drives. All told, the team only managed 87 yards on 29 plays in the first half. Harvard’s offense, on the other hand, was cruising. After Cornell escaped the first quarter down only 7-0 (due mostly to two missed field goals by Harvard’s Robbie Wright) the Crimson erupted in the second quarter for three touchdowns on its three drives.

The first two of those three touchdowns came off of broken plays for Harvard. Rose showed considerable poise in the pocket during both drives, and when he was unable to find open receivers, the inexperienced quarterback scrambled for a pair of touchdown, one a 20-yard run and the other for 10-yards.

The biggest reason for the Crimson success in the first half, however, was the running game. Undersized rusher Nick Palazzo showed great speed and quickness to bust through holes in the Cornell defensive line for big gains on first down. The Crimson found itself in second-and-short and third-and-short situations early in the afternoon, as Palazzo rushed for 107 yards on 31 carries, good for 7.1 yards a carry, in the first half.

Harvard’s final scoring drive of the half came on a trick play, as fullback Matt Leiszler used the halfback option play to toss a picture-perfect 16-yard strike to Sam Taylor that put Harvard up by a seemingly insurmountable 28-0 score.

In all, Harvard compiled 400 yards of offense in the first half, 200 in the air and 200 on the ground while using a punishing, gang-tackling defense to stifle the Red offense.

Luckily for Cornell however, football is a 60-minute game.

Things in the second half began as they did in the first half, with the Red going three-and-out and Harvard driving the ball down deep within Cornell territory. However, as Rose stepped back in the pocket on third-and-10 from the Cornell 14, sophomore linebacker Nate Spitler flew up the middle of the Harvard offensive line untouched, and forced Rose to fumble as he was being sacked. The sophomore recovered his own forced fumble and momentum officially began to change hands.

“That play is huge. It comes down to players making plays and he did,” coach Pete Mangurian said of Spitler’s forced fumble and subsequent recovery. “This game is supposed to come down to players. It doesn’t come down to coaches, it doesn’t come down to officials, it comes down to players, it came down to our guys making some plays when they needed to.”

The momentum factor caused by the fumble was evident and reverberated for the remainder of the game. “The momentum shift was very obvious to anyone who was at the game,” said Harvard head coach Tim Murphy, whose young team had trouble putting its mistakes behind it.

It was a momentum swing the Red would not let go of, as a Ricky Rahne-led offense finally showed signs of life. Two third-down pass interference calls helped sustain the drive as the Red continued to shake the rust off, before Rahne hit senior Edgar Romney on a 24-yard slant pattern in the middle of the field for the touchdown.

The Red defense stepped up and forced Harvard to go three-and-out on the best tackling the Red had seen all day. With the ball back in the capable hands of the offense, Rahne again proved that Cornell refused to admit defeat as the junior tossed a perfectly thrown 12-yard pass to a jumping senior co-captain Joe Splendorio, who used his 6’6″ frame to simply tower over the Harvard defense and catch a difficult ball in traffic.

A bad hold by Jay Posner meant a critical missed extra point for the Red, which was now down 28-13.

Harvard moved the ball no more than 27 yards on its next five drives and ended up punting in each instance as the Cornell defense made stand after stand and bought its offensive counterparts the time and ability to get back in the game. An extra man in the box stopped the running game and Rose’s inability to connect with his receivers, mostly due to tight coverage by the secondary, kept Harvard off the scoreboard and Rahne & Co., on the field.

“[Cornell] took away [our run game],” said Murphy. “It’s real simple, if they have an extra man in the box we can’t run the football and they started putting extra guys to play the run we couldn’t account for, so we had to throw the football.

“They made the adjustment,” he added. Down 28-23, the Red faced a 4:01 left on the clock and needed a touchdown drive to grab the lead. After a couple of big first down catches by Romney and sophomore tight end Mike Parris, Cornell’s drive was in a critical 4th-and-5 situation at the Harvard 48-yard line.

After a time-out, Rahne threw a perfect pass to a well-defended Tim Hermann, who beat his man and took off for a 48-yard touchdown. The junior simply outran everyone in his first catch since a concussion dropped him out of the lineup in the Bucknell game early this year. The strike put the Red ahead 29-28 with 2:45 remaining on the clock. Rahne was quick to praise Hermann after the game.

“Tim’s a great receiver, I’m just so proud of him for coming back from that hit at Bucknell. For a guy to take something like that and come back, it’s unbelievable,” the quarterback commented.

The game was certainly not over, however.

Reminiscent of last year’s 24-23 Cornell victory, the Crimson went with four wide receivers and drove the length of the field to attempt a game-winning field goal. The drive almost stalled right out of the box as the Crimson faced a critical 4th-and-one on its first set of downs, but Harvard converted on a pass to Carl Morris, one of the sophomore’s two big catches in the drive.

After another Morris catch and two runs by Leiszler, the Crimson chose to down the ball in the center of the hash marks for a final 27-yard attempt at a field

As in last year’s contest, Splendorio, the Ivy League’s special team player of the week, got just enough of his hand on the ball to push the kick wide right and send the Cornell team pouring onto the field.

“I have to credit Splendorio, I think he may be the best player in our league,” said a frustrated Murphy. “What he did two years in a row isn’t and easy thing to do, it’s not like the kicker did something he shouldn’t have done.”

When asked if the team made specific adjustments at halftime, Mangurian was quick to respond to the idea that some halftime speech made the difference.

“We calmed down at halftime,” Mangurian commented. “We needed to settle down and we needed to play well. If it worked out it was going to work out, but that wasn’t the key at halftime, believe me, all we said was ‘Let’s just go out and play.'”

“When the score’s 28-0, you don’t sit there and strategize how to score 29.

You just go in there and try to stop them and hope you can get some points on the board.”

And score it did. While it may not be points-wise the greatest comeback in Cornell history, in terms of how the Red was first dominated and how much it then dominated, this has to be the biggest turnaround in school history.

Rahne, the Ivy offensive player of the week, took over in the second half, throwing four touchdowns to four wide receivers for 342 yards and one interception.

The defense stepped up and allowed only 189 yards in the second half, including only 63 on the ground.

When it came down to it though, both coaches seemed speechless as to what specifically happened.

“I don’t know what to say about that [win], we’ve been there before I guess,” Mangurian said after the game. “They gave us some opportunities, and our guys took advantage of them. “I’m a little lost for words,” he added.

Murphy echoed Mangurian’s thoughts. “We controlled our own destiny, and they went out and made the plays when they had to and we didn’t. It’s as simple as that.

The Crimson coach was quick to add, “When it’s 28-0 at the half, there’s no excuse for losing.”

Perhaps not, but excuses were in order after the turnaround. More importantly than the ‘why’ question, the Red got a much-needed win, one it needed to remain in the championship hunt.

And it’s a win that no one present at the game will soon forget.

Archived article by Charles Persons