November 17, 2008

Football Loses Turnover Battle, Game

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NEW YORK, N.Y. — On Saturday afternoon at Wien Stadium, the 3,811 people in attendance at the Cornell-Columbia matchup witnessed two things that have never happened before in college football: Cornell senior quarterback Nathan Ford tossing four interceptions and Columbia winning a football game. Perhaps the latter is an exaggeration, but the Lions’ 17-7 victory marks only the fifth time that the program has captured an Ivy League win in the last five years.
Unfortunately, two of those victories have been at the expense of Cornell.
[img_assist|nid=33650|title=And I run|desc=Senior co-captain Nathan Ford (17) threw four interceptions in the Red’s 17-7 loss to Columbia on Saturday.|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]
“All of the credit goes to Columbia,” said head coach Jim Knowles ’87. “Everyone knew that they had a lot of talent. They kind of shot themselves in the foot in some previous games. I have a lot of respect for [head coach] Norries [Wilson] and their program. I tried to tell our team all week that Columbia would come out fighting hard, and they did that. I am not surprised by the way that Columbia played.”
The Lions (2-7, 2-4 Ivy) capitalized on a solid goal line stand at the end of the first half and a 76-yard punt return from junior wide receiver Austin Knowlin to edge the Red (4-5, 2-4) for the second consecutive time that the two teams have met on the banks overlooking the Harlem River.
Columbia, selected to finish in the cellar of the Ivy League preseason media poll, limited Cornell to its second-lowest output of the season on the ground with only 41 yards on 27 attempts while pounding the Red for 217 rushing yards. The common belief in sports that a good defense will usually prevail over a good offense held to form. Cornell entered the contest with the highest ranked passing offense in the Ancient Eight and Columbia boasted the second-ranked passing defense.
With the ground game stagnant, the Red took to the air to try and score. Ford threw for 376 yards on 34-of-53 passes, but it was his uncharacteristic four interceptions that ultimately spelled doom for Cornell.
“I am surprised by the fact that we had four turnovers and zero takeaways,” Knowles said. “You’re not going to win any game like that. We gave up a big punt return and didn’t have any big plays on the special teams. That’s typically a killer. Again, we had a lot of first downs, but we’re not putting the ball in the end zone. When you get stopped twice from the half-yard line, you don’t deserve to win the ballgame. That’s all I can say.”
Cornell began a drive with the score tied at 7 from its own 45-yard line with 2:51 remaining in the half. The Red marched the length of the field on back-to-back completions to junior wide receiver Bryan Walters for 24 and 28 yards, respectively.
On third-and-goal from the one-yard line, senior Columbia defensive end Phil Mitchell was not fooled by Ford’s quarterback sneak. Opting to go for it on fourth down, Ford was once again stuffed on the goal line on the quarterback keeper.
The Red’s offensive line, which outweighed the Lions’ defensive front four by an average of nearly 50 pounds per man, was unable to control the line of scrimmage on consecutive plays. The score remained knotted at 7 entering the half, and the Red’s momentum had evaporated.
“We had seen them [run a quarterback sneak] a couple times before,” said Columbia sophomore linebacker Alex Gross, who led the Lions with 15 tackles (five solo, 10 assisted). “We could tell by some things in their offensive line’s alignment what they were going to do. They didn’t have any timeouts, so we knew for [fourth down] they didn’t really have a chance but to run.”
Senior place kicker Jon Rocholl staked the Lions to a 10-7 advantage at the 1:34 mark of the third quarter with a 47-yard field goal, his longest boot of the season. Columbia sealed the victory on Knowlin’s 76-yard punt return for a touchdown. The score gave the Lions a 17-7 lead with 7:35 remaining in regulation.
Coincidentally, the 5-10, 190-pound flanker cut through the Crimson’s special team coverage for an identical 76-yard scamper to pay dirt only a week earlier in a 42-28 loss at Harvard.
“Their punt return team just did a really good job,” said junior linebacker Chris Costello, who led the Red with 13 tackles. “They held a couple of blocks for a pretty long time. [Knowlin] made a couple of moves. He’s a tough guy and good player. He had a couple of seams and he’s fast. He just makes people miss. We had him contained early and then he just made a couple plays and had a couple of nice blocks. We just struggled.”
Junior quarterback M.A. Olawale made only his third career start for the Lions.
The 6-1, 225-pound quarterback passed the pigskin only 23 times for 10 completions and 84 yards through the air, but it was what he accomplished with his legs that kept the Cornell defense guessing all day.
Olawale paced the Columbia rushing attack with 93 yards on 17 carries, frequently scrambling for first down yardage when he faced third-and-long situations.
“He’s tough, physical, and strong,” Knowles said. “He can do a bunch of different things and he’s very difficult to defend. He hit us twice for scrambles on third downs, which hurt. We had to fix up our front. We wanted to really make him throw it and not beat us with his feet. I thought we made some good adjustments that way.
“He’s good with the arm, but he’s better with his feet,” Knowles continued. “I thought our defense for the most part did a good job today. They hung in there against the run. Columbia has a tough running attack.”
Olawale has recently seen his minutes increase as he has been sharing time with junior quarterback Shane Kelly, who began the season behind center for the Lions. It was Olawale who came in relief for Kelly in the squad’s only other victory of the season over Dartmouth.
When asked how the quarterback “experiment” has gone this season, head coach Norries Wilson provided a humorous response.
“Experiment? I didn’t keep any data, and I didn’t have a thesis statement,” Wilson joked. “There wasn’t a reason to take Olawale out of the game. … We just go with the guy that’s playing for us right now. He didn’t know that he was going to play until breakfast this morning because I didn’t know he was going to play until breakfast this morning.”
The Lions’ first score was set up by a 23-yard run on third-and-7 by Olawale, who broke out of the pocket untouched. The Columbia rushing attack finished the job as junior tailback Ray Rangel punched it in from the one-yard line at the 7:22 mark of the first quarter.
After punting on its first three drives to open the game, Ford tossed a 60-yard pass to Walters, who streaked down the sideline before sophomore safety Adam Mehrer knocked him out of bounds at the Columbia four-yard line. Ford connected to senior wideout Jesse Baker on third-and-goal with a four-yard lob pass to the 6-2 wide out to square the contest at 7 with 9:49 remaining in the first half.
“We kind of feel if we have a bigger receiver on the outside, like myself, and it’s one-on-one, we have to make that play,” Baker said. “Nate threw it up and it was a jump ball. That’s all I can ask for. The kid was smaller and I just went up over him. That play was designed for me.”
Though Baker is truly the touchdown maker, leading the Red with six touchdown receptions — all six coming on the road — Baker’s game-high 147 receiving yards and 14 receptions were not enough to offset the fierce Lions’ attack.