November 3, 2008

Late Comeback Bid Not Enough

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Sometimes, it just doesn’t make sense. Sometimes it just doesn’t add up quite right. Sometimes, you do a lot of things right and still lose. Princeton’s 31-26 win over Cornell Saturday was exactly one of those times.
Head coach Jim Knowles ’87 stared at the stat sheet after the game, a look of bewilderment on his face, while he ticked off one stat after another — 555 total yards of offense, an early, 13-0, lead, 29 first downs, an edge in possession time and third-down conversion rate.
“[To do all that] and still lose the game shows that you are doing a lot of things right,” Knowles said.
Cornell had great individual performances too — 431 yards and three touchdowns for senior quarterback Nathan Ford, 138 yards, one beautiful one-handed catch and one touchdown for senior receiver Bryan Walters.
Nonetheless, the Red (3-4, 1-3 Ivy) could not do the thing that mattered most — win. The squad’s fourth straight loss particularly stung since it all but puts Cornell out of the race for the Ivy title. No three-loss team has ever finished atop the Ancient Eight. Princeton, at 2-2 in conference play (3-4 overall), will have to hope for Harvard, Brown or Penn to lose some games to get any shot at the title.
“It’s hard to explain it,” Knowles said. “We are certainly in a little bit of a rut. … I thought there were times today we had the chance to kind of knock them out and we didn’t do it.”[img_assist|nid=33219|title=Catch of the year|desc=Senior wide receiver Bryan Walters had a great afternoon. He piled up 138 yards and a touchdown, and also had an 82-yard punt return for a touchdown called back because of a penalty.|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]
And there were times, lots of times. It started when the Red failed to step on the Tigers’ jugular already up 10-0 and threatening in the red zone, and ended when senior quarterback Nathan Ford was not able to find senior wide receiver Jesse Baker in the end zone on the last play of the game from 20 yards out.
It was a scene all too familiar to the Cornell sideline — one play to go 20 yards and erase a five-point deficit. It was the exact same situation the Red had been in four weeks ago at Lehigh. Knowles even drew up essentially the same play that Ford and senior wideout Jesse Baker connected on at Lehigh to win the game.
“Match [Baker] up one-on-one, make it look like he is going to the back of the end zone and try and hit him in the front of the end zone,” Knowles said.
But that was then, when Cornell was catching the breaks, setting passing records and pulling out those last-second miracles on it’s way to a 3-0 record. But this is four weeks of losses and unlucky breaks later. Four weeks ago, Ford makes that throw. Saturday, he didn’t.
“[It] has to be a perfect throw and we didn’t make it,” Knowles said. “That happens.”
That play capped a whirlwind ride over the last minutes that saw Princeton seemingly wrap up the game before it almost all came undone in the final minute and a half.
The Tigers took over on downs on the Cornell 29 yard-line, leading 24-19 with only 2:31 remaining. After gaining nine yards on the ground in three plays, Princeton gambled on fourth down. Tigers’ quarterback Brian Anderson went play action, before spinning out on a naked bootleg. The defense bit on the fake and Anderson scampered untouched to the end zone to put his squad up 31-19. It was the third touchdown Anderson accounted for on the day, throwing for two others while completing 13-of-17 balls.
“Clearly, we run the football,” said Princeton head coach Phil Hughes. “We knew Cornell has done a great job in the past of taking away what you want to do best. We knew we would have to throw to keep them off balance, and we knew that we would trying to get a certain matchup in the secondary which we could exploit if they were bringing up nine guys to stop run. We were able to do that today.”
The fourth-down conversion was also symptom of a larger problem that plagued the Red all afternoon. The defense would follow up several good plays with misreads and busted coverage on third down. Although Princeton was only 4-of-13 on third-down conversions, it made the big ones.
“I think we had a couple of clutch third down conversions,” said Princeton wide receiver Will Thanheiser, who had six catches for 75 yards and two scores.
“Defensively, we continue to play real strongly in spurts and give up big play,” Knowles said. “It’s a shame because it hurts the team in general.”
But Cornell wasn’t done. A quick 55-second drive that spanned 58 yards and featured three straight completions to senior Horatio Blackman. Blackman’s last catch was a jump ball in the left corner of the end zone, bringing the score to 31-26.
While the ensuing onsides kick surprised no one, it still ended up in Cornell hands after senior wide receiver Jesse Baker dove on a Princeton fumble when the Tigers’ Chance Cross failed to field the squib before it had traveled 10 yards.
And thus began the final drive. Ford favored senior Zac Canty, completing two balls to him, the second going for 31 yards over the middle and down to the Princeton 15.
Then it got nutty. The Red lined up as if to spike the ball and stop the clock. Ford took the snap, but faked the spike. Still, whistles blew and the defense pulled up. Ford, confused, dropped back and looked at the ref. And in the midst of a hectic drive, play came to a stand still.
“It got to be a little bit of a mess,” said Princeton head coach Roger Hughes.
The refs huddled, not knowing how to officiate a play blown dead on a fake spike. Both coaches ran around, searching for an explanation.
“We have two different plays for stopping the clock,” Ford said. “One is just kill it. The other is to fake that and send [the receivers] on streaks. We were trying to run a fade right there.”
But the refs weren’t too happy with Cornell’s trickery.
“I don’t want to speculate what the official did, but I think he thought it was going to be a spike, so therefore he blew the whistle trying to preserve as much time as he could knowing the intent of the play,” Hughes said. “So he blew the whistle, which stopped the play and everyone stopped, but the clock was running.”
So the refs decided to call a five-yard penalty on Cornell for the fake spike. After some more deliberation, they also added a few seconds to the clock.
“There was no explanation [for the penalty] because it is not a penalty,” Knowles said. “They busted the call. It is not a penalty. Fake taking a knee is a penalty, but fake spiking is not a penalty. … You can use that stuff as an excuse but it doesn’t help. You are going to get some bad calls. We still could have made it, but we didn’t.”
But in the end it was just a footnote to a game of missed opportunities. It was just part of another frustrating loss for this football team.