October 15, 2007

Red Thrills at Homecoming

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Football head coach Jim Knowles ’87 weighed his options. Trailing 14-10 with just over 12 minutes to play, his team had the ball at the Colgate 28-yard line and faced a fourth-and-19. From here, a field goal is no sure thing, he thought. Punting might put the ball in the end zone for a touchback, though, he countered to himself. With no attractive options, Knowles decided to let his receivers loose.
“You can’t hold back, I analyzed it, I thought it was the right decision,” Knowles said. “We thought we had a play so we did it. It was the best decision. It may seem unconventional, but you can’t allow yourself to hold yourself back. When you know it’s the right call, you have to go for it.”
The play Knowles had in mind was one that sophomore receiver had been nagging his coach to call all game.
VIDEO highlights of the game: click here!
“I was telling coach all game ‘let’s just throw one deep and see what happens let me make a play,’” Walters said. “I knew Nate would throw it up there. It worked out, it was a well thrown ball and it ended going our way.”
After a game of dink-and-dunk passes, screens, slants and dump-offs, junior quarterback Nathan Ford thought he could catch the defense sleeping.
“They weren’t really respecting the deep ball,” he said. “And any time Bryan has press coverage, he goes up and gets it. I was looking at him the whole time.”
Ford took the snap and dropped back, eyeing Walters as he was bumped initially, but then got a step on his defender after several yards.
“Once we got a step on [the defender], I thought we had a real chance to make the play,” Knowles said.
The pass was thrown deep enough — almost too deep — where Walters was the only one with a play on the ball. As it came down, Walters dove ,cradling the ball in his fingertips. Landing face-down on top of the ball, there was a collective pause as the referee sprinted over to the receiver. After a few seconds, though, the referee threw his hands up in the air, signaling a touchdown and giving the Red (3-2, 0-2 Ivy) a 17-14 lead it would hold on to.
Walters finished with six catches for 92 yards. His score was Ford’s only touchdown of the game to go along with 285 through the air on 26 completions in 45 attempts. Ford also threw two picks.
For much of the game, however, the Red could not get any consistent rhythm on offense. The passing game was effective, but without All-Ivy running back Luke Siwula, a senior, the Colgate (3-3, 1-1 Patriot League) defense was able to man-up its pass coverage and pressure the Red receivers at the line to stop the short, quick pass attack that is usually set up by Cornell’s running game. Splitting carries, sophomore Randy Barbour and junior Shane Kilcoyne led a rushing attack that only reached double digit rushing yards in one quarter — the fourth — and finished with 36 overall.
“[Not having Luke] hurts,” Knowles said. “We talked about it before the game about how Luke is a critical part of this team and he’s a motivational force but that other guys had to step up. … It was tough going, it was really tough sledding out there. There’s no doubt that it hurt. But other guys just got to pick up the slack. That’s football.”
While Colgate controlled the line on defense, Cornell did the same on defense. All-Patriot League first teamer Jordan Scott — who averaged 187.6 yards per game coming in — spent the afternoon running almost exclusively straight up the gut from the shotgun handoff to find few holes.
“God, the guy had 110 yards, you wouldn’t have known it,” Knowles said after the game as he checked the stat sheet handed to him. “I mean, he ran the ball 33 for 110 yards — that’s how good he is. I thought we were all over him, I didn’t think he had 100 yards. His longest run was 12, which was good. We were just going to make sure that we contained him and kept him from making the long play. They’re in that shotgun and we wanted to make sure that we overplayed him because their quarterback had not kept the ball very often in the past.”
After a six-punt first quarter ended at 0-0, the Red slowly marched down the field on a 6:45 drive and got on the board with a 23-yard field goal after coming up empty in the red zone. Colgate answered with a drive that repeatedly featured quarterback Alex Relph to Pat Simonds. Simonds leaped to grab a pass down the sideline while sophomore Frank Morand was still closing on him. Two plays later, after senior co-captain Colin Nash had switched on to him, Simonds again caught a 25-yard jump ball. This time he was in the end zone and Colgate took a 7-3 lead into half-time.
In the locker room, Knowles decided what problems needed to be addressed, then went about fixing them. First, he needed a way to shut down Simonds.
“They had some mismatches on us at some postitions but I thought we made some great half-time adjustments on [Simonds] who beat us three times in a row on their touchdown,” Knowles said. “Then they came back and hit [receiver Eric Bruke for a touchdown later]. But I thought we made some excellent adjustments on defense.”
Second, the coaching staff wanted to give Ford more time in the pocket, as he had been hurried and hit several times in the first half.
“Coach did a great job with blitz-pick-up schemes,” Ford said. “We made a few adjustments at half-time and switched around protections because [Colgate] saw what Harvard did a lot and was successful with and they tried to imitate that. So, we had a lot more protection checks.”
Ford said the Red’s schemes worked especially well in the empty-backfield set the team runs frequently when it lines up four or five receivers. Still, it would be a defensive play that would turn the momentum for the Red not even two minutes into the third quarter.
After getting beat by Simonds in the first half, Morand stayed with his man on Colgate’s first drive of the second half. When the Raiders went to Simonds in the flat, he turned downfield before securing the ball. Morand was on his man and as Simonds bobbled it, Morand grabbed it and went the other way 72 yards for the score to put the Red up 10-7. It was the first interception returned for a touchdown by Cornell since Nov. 10, 2001 — when Morand was in middle school.
After the game, Colgate head coach Dick Biddle pointed to that play and the Walters’ touchdown as the big plays that changed the game.
“It was a game of big plays and they made the plays,” he said. “ … We just didn’t make the plays when we had to.”
Colgate would have one more big play left in them, though. With Simonds covered, Relph went to Erik Burke on a deep out pattern. Nash, running with Burke, was left behind as Burke separated at the goal line and caught the ball unaccosted a few yards into the end zone. Burke celebrated while Nash appealed to the referee, indicating with his hands that Burke had pushed off. Either way, the score stood 14-10 until the Walters’ score which put the score at its final, 17-14.
“Boy, I’m just so proud,” Knowles said. “ … People expect us to win on homecoming and play our best and represent. … We talked about the story of the ancient Greek warriors and how they used to burn their boats so they had no way home unless they won, unless they had victory. We were just going to go out today in our stadium and leave it all out there.”