November 5, 2001

Defense Comes up Strong in Final Moments

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HANOVER, N.H. — It seems the Cornell defense has found out what playing 60 minutes of football means.

For the first five games of this season, Cornell was giving up over 24 points on average in the second half. The past two weeks, it has given up a total of 10 points in the crucial final quarters. The first five weeks? An 0-5 record. The last two? 2-0.

For the second straight week, when the Cornell defense had to step up and make plays, it did so. This weekend, after giving up 24 points to a Dartmouth team that was being led by its third-string quarterback, the defense stood tall and stymied the Big Green when it counted.

“When we needed to make a stop we did,” head coach Tim Pendergast said after the contest.

It didn’t look like it was going to be that way though. After getting into the locker room with a 14-14 tie, the defense allowed Dartmouth to run around and through it for the next two Green possessions. Dartmouth put up 10 quick points following the break, six of them coming on a 34-yard touchdown romp through the heart of the Cornell defense by tailback Michael Gratch with 7:03 left on the clock in the third quarter.

That score could have been a dagger through Cornell’s heart, but the defense, led by junior free safety Jamie Moriarty and a suddenly adept defensive line, was determined to keep it from becoming one.

As the offense worked to sputter back to life, the defense did everything in its power over the next five Green drives to give the offense every advantage possible.

The first came just two plays after a fumble by Ricky Rahne that could have spelt the end for the Red. Already down 24-14, the team had lost all momentum from one of the best drives it had put together when the ball was jarred from Rahne’s hand.

But the defensive line that had seemed so porous earlier suddenly came alive, stopping Gratch in his tracks on the next play and stripping the ball from the previously flawless Green tailback one play later. Cornell had the ball back right where Rahne had lost it.

The offense went three-and-out, and kicker senior Peter Iverson couldn’t quite connect from 43 yards out, giving Dartmouth the ball back on its own 26. It would have that ball for exactly one play, as Moriarty picked off his second Joseph Kinder pass of the day at the Dartmouth 48.

That turnover resulted in a touchdown, and Cornell found itself just three points back to start the fourth quarter.

Dartmouth would manage just another five plays before Kinder would make his third mistake of the game, throwing a ball that was picked off by Deron Smith. The pick was the first of the freshman’s promising young career.

For the third straight series, the offense started in Dartmouth territory, and once again made the most of the situation, capping off a 49-yard drive with an 11-yard romp from senior Evan Simmons around the right side of his line.

While a 28-24 lead with nearly ten minutes remaining might have felt insecure, the defense made it anything but. At the start of the next Dartmouth series senior George Paraskevopoulos recorded a pair of tackles on Gratch, both catching the speedy rusher in the backfield, resulting in losses totaling seven yards. Dartmouth would punt after an incomplete pass a play later.

The final Dartmouth drive was stopped by another key play on Gratch, this time from junior Nate Spitler and senior Rich Zasek. They stopped the back behind the line again, forcing a previously driving Dartmouth team into an uncomfortable second and 11 from the Cornell 44. Three plays later, as a Kinder pass to Damien Roomets fell incomplete, the defense had forced a turnover on downs and all that was left to do was run out the clock.

“[That series] defensively for us was a very critical series,” Pendergast noted.

The statistics from those last five drives are telling. Gratch, who had run for 149 yards on just 19 rushes (7.8 yards per carry) was stuffed for minus eight yards on five carries. Kinder, who had been efficient, if not good, went 0-4 with two interceptions. Only tailback Pat Risha, who managed 56 yards on his final ten carries could muster anything against a tough Red defense.

If the defense plays like it did at the end of the Dartmouth game, the Red’s prospects of winning next week look good.

Archived article by Charles Persons