The script, it seemed, had already been written. One week after completing a stirring fourth-quarter rally to come back from 19 points down, the football team seemed destined to do it again on Saturday against Penn. Trailing, 20-0, as late as with 8:44 remaining in the fourth quarter, the Red came within striking distance of the No. 22 team in the country. Despite the fact that this time, Cornell could not complete its improbable comeback in its 20-14 loss on Saturday, the season’s final game did show exactly how far the program has come in the year that has passed since the last time it the Quakers.
“It took our guys a while to actually figure out that ‘hey we can play with these guys.’ It took a few quarters to figure that out, but we stayed in there and in the end, I really thought that we were going to get the win,” said Cornell head coach Jim Knowles ’87. “The loss doesn’t sit well with me, and it’ll give our guys something to really work towards in the off season. I can’t say enough about their effort and the effort of the senior class to get this program turned around.”
With its back against the wall and time beginning to run out, the Red responded with the type of fourth quarter its opponents have typically had this season. But the last three weeks have been different than most of this season.
After allowing a 49 fourth-quarter points over the season’s first seven games — a period in which the Red went 2-5, Cornell has become a much stronger late-game team in recent weeks. Beginning with the team’s 14-7 victory over Dartmouth on Nov. 6, the Red has held its opponents to just 12 in the fourth quarter since. The increase in intestinal fortitude in late-game situations has been one of the final pieces of the team’s massive turnaround this season.
“When we came in here, we felt like there was no reason for us to not have the opportunity to be in every game, and we did that,” Knowles said. “There wasn’t a game that we weren’t in all year. Now we have to make sure that we turn those close ones that happened earlier in the season to our favor so that we’re still in it at the end of the year.”
As he did last week, senior quarterback D.J. Busch fueled much of the late rally on Saturday. In the fourth quarter, he went five-for-eight for 83 yards. He also scored the team’s first touchdown of the game on a keeper with 8:44 left.
However, as much as he played the role of hero in the comeback, it was a mistake that he made that stands out most from his performance.
With the Red on Penn’s 25-yard line with around two minutes left to play, Busch dropped back to pass with ample time to get off the play. However, instead of connecting with sophomore Anthony Jackson down the middle, the ball slipped and Penn’s Michael Johns intercepted the pass in the end zone. The interception ended what might have been Cornell’s third consecutive touchdown drive, what was clearly an opportunity to potentially tie the game or even take the lead.
“The ball just slipped right out of my hand,” Busch said. “I had a guy open, it was tight coverage, they played well. It was a play we completed two or three times earlier in the game. Their safeties have been known to get a lot of depth and we did a great job getting a hole right there.”
However, though Penn avoided the fate that Cornell forced Columbia to suffer a week ago, the Quakers did take note of the vast improvement the Red has experienced over the course of this season.
“Once the team gets momentum it’s hard, but our kids have done a nice job of showing resolve,” Penn head coach Al Bagnoli said. “It’s not a good feeling as a coach because you know that there’s only a couple of possessions left for both teams and you know that you’re going to have to be perfect on the possessions, you’re going into the wind, you have everything scripted the way you want it, and you turn it over and give them a short field.”
Archived article by Owen Bochner
Sun Sports Editor