For only the second time in program history, the football team knocked off a ranked opponent on Saturday night, defeating No. 23 Albany, 23-21, in front of 6,571 fans at Schoellkopf Field.
The Red (1-2, 0-1 Ivy League) jumped out to a 20-7 halftime lead, before falling behind early in the fourth quarter, 21-20. However, sophomore quarterback Nathan Ford, with the help of a gutsy fake punt call by head coach Jim Knowles ’87, promptly engineered a 64-yard drive for the winning field goal with just over six minutes left in regulation.
[img_assist|nid=18698|title=Piling it on|desc=The Cornell defense smothers Albany’s attack in the first quarter of the Red’s 23-21 victory on Schoellkopf Field Saturday night. (Robert Bonow / Sun Photo Editor)|link=none|align=left|width=100|height=77]
“We all knew all along that we had the ability to beat anyone,” said junior tailback Luke Siwula. “We didn’t even see them as a ranked opponent — we just saw it as another team. What we had to do was focus on ourselves — obviously not make mistakes like we did in the first two games.”
Siwula was the focal point of the Cornell offense, rushing for 162 yards on 32 carries and a touchdown. The scoring play came in the first quarter and snapped the Red’s season-long touchdown drought.
Sophomore quarterback Nathan Ford was 12-of-38 passing, and finished with 112 yards in the air and his first career touchdown pass to senior wideout Anthony Jackson. Sophomore Zac Canty caught five passes from Ford for 49 yards. On the defensive side, junior Colin Nash had seven tackles and his first career interception for Cornell.
The Albany attack was directed by quarterback Daniel Bocanegra, who came off the bench to throw 136 yards and a 22-yard touchdown pass to Mike Wall. Marcus Allen led the ground attack with 39 yards on 10 carries, and Colin Simmons added 37 yards on nine carries. Mark Sheehan provided a highlight for the Great Danes when he returned an interception 55 yards for a touchdown in the fourth quarter.
Cornell extended its lead to 10-0 late in the first quarter on a 28-yard field goal by junior Peter Zell. On Albany’s next possession, punter Chris Lynch pinned Cornell back at the 2-yard line, leading to a three-and-out by the Red offense. The Great Danes started their subsequent drive at Cornell’s 35-yard line and took full advantage of the field position, as quarterback Daniel Bocanegra tossed a 22-yard touchdown to Mike Wall.
Ford immediately responded with a touchdown pass of his own, a four-yard score to Jackson, capping off a 12-play, 70-yard drive. Zell added a career-long 45-yard field goal with just over three minutes left in the half to put the Red ahead, 20-7, to the dismay of Albany head coach Bob Ford.
“Was I worried? You bet. But I do this for a living,” Ford said. “I don’t think we underestimated them. I do believe they played with a tremendous amount of passion and you can do that sometimes when you’re back is against the wall.”
For the first half, Cornell outgained Albany, 141 yards to 52, and held the ball nearly twice as long, 19:08 to 10:52. However, the momentum began to change early in the third quarter and continued to swing in the fourth. After a pair of punts by each squad, the Great Danes put together a 65-yard drive, resulting in a one-yard touchdown run by Omar Johnson. The score cut the lead to just six and put the pressure back on the Cornell offense.
Unfortunately for the Red, it was unable to respond, as defensive lineman Sheehan picked off Ford on a tipped pass and returned it for a 55-yard touchdown. The Great Danes took a 21-20 lead on the extra point with 11:08 to play in the game.
“It’s not every day that a defensive lineman gets an interception, so when I got it I just took the ball and ran as fast as I could,” Sheehan said. “The d-backs kind of beat me down the field even though I had the ball. But, they sprung me after a few blocks.”
On the Red’s next drive, it looked as if it would be forced to punt after gaining only five yards on three plays, setting up a fourth-and-five from the Red’s 25-yard line. Cornell lined up in punt formation, but instead of giving the ball to junior punter Michael Bolling, junior safety Michael Boyd took the direct snap and ran for a seven-yard gain and a first down at the 32.
“We worked that fake punt in practice. We talked about it for a while,” Knowles said. “I just thought that our offense was struggling a little bit. Very rarely will you run that play [that deep in your own territory]. That’s where you have the element of surprise. We got a good kick-out block by [sophomore] Graham Rihn. The snap was low. It was wasn’t perfect, but it was executed well enough to get the first down.”
With a new set of downs, the combination of Ford and Siwula led the offense down to the Albany 16-yard line. The drive stalled there, but Zell put Cornell back in front with a 33-yard field goal with 6:22 left.
Siwula proved to be the difference for the Red, thrashing one of the better rush defenses in the country.
“I think Luke Siwula’s one of the toughest human beings I know,” Knowles said. “He fights for every single yard. He’s extremely reliable and we’re lucky to have him.”
Siwula himself remained slightly more humble following his eighth career 100-yard rushing game in just 13 career starts.
“It’s completely attributed to the offensive line,” Siwula said. “The guys do a great job getting displacement and moving people out of the way. This is supposedly one of the best rushing defenses in the nation and we solidified ourselves as one of the best offensive lines in the nations and one of the best rushing attacks.”
After the Red took the lead, its defense did the rest, stopping the Great Danes offense on two separate occasions. The final drive of the game for Albany was stalled at their own 46-yard line, leading to a raucous celebration on the Cornell sideline.
“But when it was all over, that’s what happens when you’re ranked No. 23 and you come in and you get beat,” Ford said. “I think they thought they beat Southern Cal. But my hat’s off to them. I wouldn’t take anything away from the way Cornell played.”
With its back against the wall, the Red earned its first win of the year, heading into a road matchup against archrival Harvard.
“The placemat for the game today was how your success doesn’t shape you — how you handle adversity is what shapes you,” Knowles said. “That’s all this team needed to learn. We just needed to learn that inside every one of them is a champion and they can’t forget that, no matter what happens. It’s always the next play that counts.”