December 1, 2000

Football Still One Step Away From Title

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It was a season of highlights and great, last-second wins. It was a season of records falling again. But, more importantly, it was a season that may always be remembered for the title that got away. Again.

It’s too bad really, as the football team accomplished so much before the 45-15 defeat at the hands of a Penn team that certainly looked the superior team on the final day of the season. For those who only saw the last game, it might be difficult to understand all the excitement that surrounded this year’s team.

But there was plenty to be excited about.

“I’m proud of the level of consistency this team has achieved,” said head coach Pete Mangurian. “Over the last two years, we’ve won as much as anyone in the league.”

Not only that, but over the last two years, this team has also won as many Ivy games as any Cornell team of the past. 10 Ivy wins in the last couple of seasons is the best two-year record you’ll find at this school. No Cornell team has ever won five Ivy games in back-to-back years.

But unlike last year’s football team, this year’s squad had been widely heralded in the pre-season as a member of the Ivy elite and expected to challenge for a league crown. Junior quarterback Ricky Rahne and company weren’t going to sneak up on anyone the way they did in 1999. Everyone was gunning for the Red, and the team knew it.

For a while, that didn’t seem to matter. For the first two Ivy League games, two of the best teams in the conference had no answer for the Cornell offense. Or, more specifically, had no answer for the Cornell offense in the second half. After an opening week 38-15 loss to Bucknell, the Red returned to Ithaca for a Homecoming match against Yale — Ivy League preseason co-favorites.

It was a game that seemed to typify every Cornell victory this season. The day was ugly, but the crowd and the team were undaunted. Down 20-10 at the start of the fourth, the Red scored 14 points in the final frame, capped by a Rahne touchdown pass to senior Joe Splendorio with 2:16 to go. But the defense, which had been so good in the second half, allowed Yale to march down the field to set up a 32-yard field goal for the ’99 All-Ivy first-team kicker, Mike Murawczyk. The kick sailed wide left, sending a euphoric football team and freshman class onto the field for an improbable 24-23 victory.

As it turned out, Cornell became used to winning games on last-second plays, and by the time it nipped Princeton (as Taylor Northrup slipped on the last-second extra point try for a 25-24 Cornell win), the team barely celebrated.

It’s those close wins that Mangurian seems to be the most proud of.

“I’m proud we win close games,” the coach commented. “People don’t give [close games] to us, we win them.”

The team was more than just lucky. It was more than just the recipients of the greatest bit of luck ever bestowed upon any team. This squad mastered the art of the comeback.

Its ability to do so gave Red fans hope when they shouldn’t have had any. Sometimes that was a good thing. Occasionally, it wasn’t.

Never — not even down 42-0 at Brown — did the Red fold its cards and call it an afternoon. The threat of the Cornell comeback always seemed to linger in the back of opponents’ minds. Without fail, opposing coaches would mention their fear during postgame press conferences.

Down 28-0 at the half at Harvard, the team seemed sunk. It had done nothing right, offensively or defensively. Harvard looked like the greatest football team in the world. Then, as if the fates simply changed their mind, Harvard could do no right while Cornell could do no wrong. In the end, the scoreboard read 29-28.

Sometimes though, the mentality that it could get out of anything doomed the team. Against Brown, that all came to light. The team fell behind 42-0 after giving up touchdowns on six of Brown’s first seven possessions. Then, everything started going right. Rahne began hitting his passes (usually the sign that the comeback was starting) and the team started closing the gap. It was too little, too late though. Cornell did manage to put 40 points on the board, but couldn’t overcome the deficit.

“We lost to two teams [Brown and Penn] that played very well that day, and we would have had to play very well to beat them on those days,” said Mangurian.

Brown did play very well that day, dropping Cornell to a 2-1 Ivy record — still good enough for a place in the midst of a five-way jumble for the top spot. Cornell had beaten two of those teams already — Yale and Harvard — but had yet to face Princeton and Penn.

From that point though, no Ivy team seemed to have an answer for Cornell. No lead was safe, no amount of points was enough. Brown had proved there was a way to beat this team — outscore it. The question was which other teams in the Ivy League had that same ability?

Princeton didn’t. Dartmouth never had a chance and fell, 49-31, when Cornell put up three touchdowns in the fourth quarter. Columbia put 31 on the board as well, but that again wasn’t’ enough. No team that put fewer than 35 points on the board could defeat a squad that had one of the best and most balanced passing offenses in the country.

Five different members of the team caught 30 passes this season, seniors Edgar Romney and Splendorio, juniors Justin Dunleavy and Tim Hermann and sophomore Keith Ferguson. Dunleavy, Ferguson, and Splendorio all caught over 40 passes. Double-teaming Splendorio, which was usually what happened, simply led to other people being open.

“I saw a lot of double coverage this season,” said Splendorio. “But that just means other people are open.”

But when it came down to Cornell and Penn for the title on the last weekend, it became apparent that this wasn’t going to be the Red’s year.

Penn simply found a way to stop Cornell, winning the battle in the trenches and keeping the offense from getting into a rhythm. Penn quarterback Gavin Hoffman proved he was the real deal, legitimizing his All-Ivy and league MVP selection by going 27 for 34 and passing for 330. Kris Ryan hammered a Cornell defense that suddenly looked more porous than it ever had before. The offense was in a place it had never been before, down too many points and unable to dictate the play of the game.

No comeback was in the cards for the Red.

“You’re always disappointed when you lose the last game,” said Mangurian. “It still hurts, and I’m disappointed with the way it ended.”

Almost as disappointing is the fact that no Cornellians were named to the first team All-Ivy squad. It seems ludicrous to think that the second best team in the league can only boast five honorable mention All-Ivy selections (Splendorio, Rahne, Dunleavy, offensive lineman Scott Fithen and co-captain linebacker Dan Weyandt).

There are grumblings that this team didn’t get the respect it deserved for winning its games. It seems the other Ivy coaches chalked up those three one-point league wins to a lot of luck.

“I don’t think the other teams want to acknowledge what we’re doing here,” Mangurian said. “This is not a star-based system. We don’t play with a star,” he adds with a measure of pride.

Despite the controversy, things appear bright. The immediate disappointment leads to hope for next year. The team was as close as it could come to winning without accomplishing its goals, a painful fact that bodes well for next year’s squad.

“Getting that close and losing gives you a different perspective,” said Mangurian. “You really don’t understand it until you go through it.”

Going through “it” may be just what this team needs to get it over the hump. The atmosphere at Schoellkopf, though a disappointed one, is already looking forward to next year.

“There’s focus already [for next year],” Mangurian said. “The goals are clear.

“There’s no more room for improvement — from here we either win it all or go backwards,” Mangurian said. “I’m not interested in going backwards.”

We all have a year to wait and see just how that “interest” plays out.

Archived article by Charles Persons