Down 20 points with nine minutes to play in Saturday’s game against No. 22 Penn, the situation at Schoellkopf Field looked dire for Cornell’s football team. Then a blocked field goal and a Quaker fumble led to two quick scores for the Red, which took the field poised to mount its second fourth-quarter comeback in as many games and earn an improbable upset against one of the Ivy League’s top teams.
For the squad which went winless in the Ancient Eight a year ago — including a humiliating 59-7 loss at Franklin Field — a win would have iced a Cinderella season and given the once hapless team a 5-2 league mark and a share of second place. But the cards fell in Penn’s favor, and cornerback Michael Johns intercepted an end-zone pass by senior quarterback D.J. Busch on Cornell’s penultimate possession, all but sealing Cornell’s fate. The visitors held on for a 20-14 victory, as both teams concluded their seasons.
With the loss, Cornell dropped to 4-6 (4-3 Ivy), while Penn improved to 8-2 overall and 6-1 in league play. After beating Penn last week, Harvard remained undefeated with its 35-3 victory over Yale, and claimed the League crown, while the Quakers moved into second place, and the Red finished third. The ranking was the highest for Cornell since 2000, when the team went 5-2 in Ivy play, good for second place.
“I’m incredibly proud of this team for all they have accomplished this season,” said head coach Jim Knowles ’87. “This one will hurt for a couple of days, but I think our seniors will look back at this year and see the strides we’ve made as a team and as a program. The names [of seniors, Ryan] Lempa, Busch, [David] Archer, [Brad] Kitlowski, and all the rest will also be a part of turning this program around.”
Cornell’s defense stood strong throughout most of the contest, holding the powerful Penn offense to 350 total yards, but the Red failed to sustain any significant offensive drives, and the Quakers capitalized on one turnover for a touchdown and got their other two scores off a blown field goal attempt and a 99-yard drive.
While Penn got all of its points on the board by the third quarter, Cornell waited until the last few minutes of play to cross the goal line. After senior linebacker Dan Collins blocked a 39-yard field goal attempt — the Red’s second blocked kick attempt of the game and record-setting eighth of the season — Cornell recovered near midfield and drove to the one-yard line. Busch then snuck the ball for Cornell’s first seven points of the game. Penn fumbled on its ensuing possession, and senior Sean Nassioy recovered the ball with 7:14 to play. After a pass from Busch bounced off of senior wide receiver Chad Nice and fell fortuitously in the hands of junior Brian Romney, the Red lined up on the five-yard line, and junior Joshua Johnston ran the ball in for Cornell’s second score. The touchdown brought the teams within six points of each other, 20-14, and left the Red with 4:54 to score again and kick the extra point to clinch the win.
“It took our guys a while to finally say ‘Hey, we can play with these guys.'” Knowles said. “We were a play short. This loss doesn’t sit well with me.”
Junior defensive lineman Matt Pollock sacked Penn quarterback Bryan Walker in the Quakers’ own half on their next possession, setting up a third-and-15 situation, which Penn could not convert.
After the punt, Busch led the team to the 25-yard line with a pass to Romney and a run by Johnston, but the quarterback’s next pass — intended again for Romney — slipped and flew wide into the end zone, where Johns made his game-saving pick.
“The ball just slipped right out of my hands. It was a play we’d completed two or three teams earlier in the game. I’ll be thinking about that one for a long time,” Busch said. “The ball shouldn’t be slipping out of my hands with two minutes left in the fourth quarter. I’ve been playing football too long for that to happen. But I think our offense showed a lot of pride. We should’ve won.”
Busch finished the game 11-for-19, for 177 yards, with two interceptions and one rushing touchdown. Junior Ryan Kuhn, who played intermittently over the course of the afternoon, passed for 32 yards on three-for-nine passing. Johnston also added a score and finished with 71 yards on 18 carries, while Romney caught seven balls for 115 yards.
On the other side of the ball, senior Kevin Rex recorded a team-high nine tackles, one interception, and two passes broken up. Pollock led the line with five tackles, including two for a loss, one sack, and two pass deflections.
“This was a microcosm of our season. We had to fight for everything and nothing came easy. I give these kids a tremendous amount of credit,” said Penn head coach Al Bagnoli. “It was a really gutsy performance against a much-improved team.”
Penn’s senior class matched the school’s four-year Ivy League win record, and it also amassed the second most wins over a four-year period in the modern era. The Quakers were last year’s Ivy League champions with a perfect 10-0 record.
Though Cornell’s senior class cannot boast of similar accomplishments, it did reverse a streak of three consecutive losing seasons and raise the bar for future teams in the Red’s pursuit of an Ivy League title.
“The next step is to play for a championship at the end of the season. There’s no reason not to be in every game,” Knowles said. “That’s the only reason we play. We expect to win every game, and we’re going to work like it in the offseason.”
Archived article by Everett Hullverson
Sun Assistant Sports Editor