PHILADELPHIA – Cornell did not win an Ivy League title on Saturday, nor did it even finish second. But, the football team continued its remarkable turnaround ever since head coach Jim Knowles’ ’87 arrival two years ago, beating perennial powerhouse Penn, 16-7, at Franklin Field for its first win against the Quakers since 1999.
The victory is especially symbolic and precious to Knowles and the departing senior class, since it was just two seasons ago, when the Quakers demolished the Red on the same field, 59-7. It is also Cornell’s third road win under Knowles, and undoubtedly his and the team’s most significant.
“That’s the biggest win that I’ve ever had,” Knowles said. “For this senior class, we talked about it two years ago when we came down here and literally hit the rock bottom of Cornell football and lost 59-7. Just two years later, to come back and beat a really quality opponent, one of the predominately best teams in the Ivy League, it’s really a Super Bowl for that senior class.”
This fighting through adversity for the Cornell football program, which recorded its 600th win on Saturday, could possibly be personified through senior quarterback Ryan Kuhn. Kuhn, whose role as starting quarterback was questioned earlier this season, had his best performance of the year, serving as the catalyst for the Red in the second half by throwing for a touchdown and scoring one on his own.
Kuhn broke the 1,000-yard rushing barrier on Saturday by earning 97 yards on 27 carries and also made some vital passes down the stretch.
“He’s been terrific the whole year,” said Penn head coach Al Bagnoli. “It’s really impressive when you have kids who take a lot of hits and just keep on coming back. He’s made an awful lot of plays with his feet, and today I think he made some plays with his arm.”
The Red came out of halftime down 7-0 after Penn quarterback Pat McDermott completed a 17-yard touchdown pass to Matt Carre in the first quarter. However, after Cornell’s defense forced Penn to punt, the Red took over the game. Starting on the Cornell 41, Kuhn earned a first down off an 11-yard run, before busting out for 19 more yards three plays later.
The drive resulted in a 42-yard field goal by senior A.J. Weitsman after Penn’s Naheem Harris sacked Kuhn on third down. Although he missed a field goal attempt in second quarter, Weitsman set a program season record for field goals with 14.
Meanwhile, the Red defense, which gave up 149 total yards, including a mere 33 on the ground, stood tough throughout the day, preventing the Quakers from generating any offense. It forced a three-and-out on Penn’s next possession, and Cornell took advantage.
After earning a first down, Kuhn, who was 8-of-16 for 97 yards, bombed a 24-yard pass to junior Anthony Jackson, who was pushed out of bounds. Three plays later, Kuhn ran for 15 yards deep into Quaker territory before throwing into the end zone and finding Jackson again for an 11-yard touchdown pass, giving the Red a 10-7 lead.
“We still didn’t break 20 passes, but we talk about it all the time, we just want to get a little bit better every game and to be able to make the big play when we need it, and I thought we did that,” Knowles said.
Cornell dominated possession in the second half due to its defensive play and its rushing offense, holding the ball for 36:57 compared to Penn’s 23:03 on Saturday. The Red forced another three-and-out towards the end of the third quarter and did not give up a big play against the Quakers – a weakness that had plagued the squad throughout this year.
“We know that the only way we can be beat defensively is that big play,” said senior safety Kevin Rex, who recorded three tackles. “Our defense has played well all year from the defensive line from the front all the way to the back. I just can’t be prouder than the way our defense performed this year.”
On the ensuing Cornell possession, Kuhn led his team on its final scoring drive. Starting on Cornell’s 48, Kuhn and sophomore tailback Luke Siwula, who gained 84 yards on 26 carries, combined to rush for 37 yards, culminating in a 5-yard trot into the end zone by the quarterback. A botched extra-point attempt kept the score at 16-7.
Penn tried to get back into the encounter, but was unsuccessful, and on fourth-and-2 with 6:33 left in the game, junior Jonathan Lucas pummeled Penn’s Dan McDonald, breaking up a McDermott pass and effectively quashing any demons left from two years ago.
“It’s not only mine, but I think it’s the team’s best performance all season,” Kuhn said. “I look at the success of this team, and we’ve gotten better every single game this season, which is so important and which we’re so proud of.”
It was a day of mixed feelings for the members of the senior class, as it was their last game playing for Cornell, and perhaps the last football game that they would ever play. As the players gathered on the northwest corner outside of Franklin Field on a cloudless day, it hit Kuhn that it was all over. Overcome with emotion, he “lost it” when he saw his parents.
“I was looking at the scoreboard and it was 4:23 left on the clock,” said senior linebacker Joel Sussman, who had five tackles and a first-half interception. “I wanted it to go fast, but at the same time, I didn’t want it to end.”
“The bonds that are built between your friends when you play football is something that you’ll never forget,” Rex said. “These are my best friends, these are kids that are going to be there at my wedding, they’re going to be there when my children are born, I’m going to be there for them. That’s what’s tough – playing football with your best friends is over.”
And while the sun set on Saturday in Philadelphia and careers were put to an end, Cornell football continued its new beginnings.
Archived article by Brian Tsao
Sun Assistant Sports Editor