November 12, 2007

Kilcoyne and Walters Touchdown Returns Key Victory

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With Cornell kicking off to Columbia for the third time in the first quarter, the stadium announcer was beginning to sound like a broken record.
“Deep to receive for Columbia, Josh A. Williams and Austin Knowlin.”
The third kickoff came after sophomore Bryan Walters had just ran a punt back 82 yards to put the Red (5-4, 2-4 Ivy) up 21-0 and on its way to a 34-14 victory over the Lions (1-8, 0-6).
“I think we’re a team that plays a little bit better when we get off to a good start because you can execute your systems,” said head coach Jim Knowles ’87. “You can run your game plan on offense, you can blitz and run your game plan on defense.”
The quick start was something that hasn’t happened for the Red that often this year and it allowed Knowles to implement a game plan that featured a more balanced approach with sophomore Stephen Liuzza starting under center in place of injured quarterback junior Nathan Ford. Liuzza ran for two scores and 85 yards and complemented that by connecting on 17-of-26 passes for 163 yards. The offensive line kept the pressure off Liuzza, allowing him to bob and weave through the line on keepers or find receivers down field.
“Our game plan was to get me out on the edge and let me basically just throw to the open guy,” Liuzza said. “[Columbia] stayed back and that left some guys open underneath and all I had to do was throw the ball maybe five, 10 yards and let our receivers take it from there and get some yards after the catch.”
The Red was able to execute this game plan early and because of a long return, not by Walters, but by junior Shane Kilcoyne. Kilcoyne took the opening kickoff down the right sideline to give Cornell a 7-0 lead 16 seconds into the game.
“We called a right return and we had talked all week about how their coverage team tended to bunch up in the middle of the field, and that just kind of opened the right side and I got a couple of blocks,” Kilcoyne said.
Kilcoyne, who hasn’t returned kicks much since early last season, is a dynamic player, according to coach Knowles — one he would like to see get more touches.
“[Kilcoyne] just hasn’t gotten the ball enough so [kickoffs are] another way to get it to him,” Knowles said. “As you can tell, one play, 94 yards — not bad.”
The Red, plagued by 13 turnovers the past two weeks, also had its first turnover-free game of the season, and particularly, its first game without an interception.
“Were there zero turnovers today?” Knowles asked in the press conference, half serious, half joking.
Part of executing the defensive gameplan was a pin-your-ears-back blitzing approach. Cornell blitzed more than it had most of the year, dropping a Columbia quarterback four times. Columbia quarterback Craig Hormann struggled in the face of constant pressure throughout the first half.
“They bring all kinds of different blitzes,” Hormann said. “They bring safeties, linebackers, pretty much everybody that’s out there. Throughout the game I didn’t do a very good job of recognizing when they were blitzing. We had worked all week checking out certain plays that we saw the blitz and putting ourselves in a better situation and I struggled with that today.”
While the defense stopped the Lions from moving more than 28 yards on any possession in the first quarter, it was the special teams that kept Columbia off the board. On a 33-yard field-goal attempt with just over 7 minutes to go in the first period, junior Graham Rihn broke through the line and sent the ball side winding in the opposite direction and into the hands of senior Doug Lempa.
“The only saving grace on that was that we actually got the gentleman tackled after they decided to return,” said Columbia head coach Norries Wilson.
The Lions would not be able to tackle Liuzza on the ensuing possession, however, as he engineered an 11-play, 68-yard drive to make it 14-0. Liuzza rushed for 38 of those yards on four keepers and completed each of his three passes for 32 yards. A 15-yard Liuzza run around the right end resulted in the tally.
“A couple times I thought we were going to get a sack and he found a way to get himself free,” Wilson said. “He made some plays with his feet and he did a great job managing the game for Cornell.”
Then came Walters’ 82-yard return as the first quarter wound down.
“All of our coverage was on two thirds of the field and of course [Walters] took the ball on the third we weren’t on and took the ball in for a touchdown,” Wilson said. “So [Cornell] did a great job blocking but there were some mistakes that we made.”
For Rihn, the key to the return success was switching up the blocking strategy.
“We’ve been running middle return for the past five weeks and we haven’t shown right return and that’s what I think hit it big … the right return,” he said.
From there the scoring died down, and the Cornell defense took over. The Lions’ rushing attack had no chance with the Red racking up 10 tackles for a loss — 4 1/2 from Rihn.
So Columbia went to the air, throwing the ball 32 times in the second half. And despite letting up 204 second-half passing yards, the Red defense was not plagued by the big play like it was against Dartmouth. The 19 completions were mostly on short patterns as the Red secondary kept the receiving unit in front of it to the tune of just over 10 yards per catch. Junior safety Tim Bax had 15 tackles.
“I saw our DBs playing with a renewed confidence,” Knowles said.
The Lions remained scoreless in the second half until an Austin Knowlin touchdown catch (his second on the day) with 4 seconds left. The pass came from backup Shane Kelley who had replaced Hormann.
“When you’re down 34-7 and you go down and make it 34-14, that’s just something for the stats,” Wilson said. “Show that to me when it’s 7-0, not when you’re down by 31.”