November 24, 2008

Penn’s Defense Spoils Football’s Senior Day

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On a snowy Saturday afternoon in the final game of the 2008 season, it was strength versus strength as Cornell hosted Penn in the annual Trustees Cup. The Red boasted the Ivy League’s top-ranked offense while the Quakers entered with the Ancient Eight’s stingiest defense. The old mantra that a good defense trumps a good offense held true, as Penn’s 23-6 victory sent Cornell on the way to its first losing season since 2004.
What began as an exciting and promising season for the Red (4-6, 2-5 Ivy) — which won its first three games — came to a sputtering conclusion with Cornell losing six of its final seven contests. The Red’s two league victories tied Columbia for the sixth spot in the Ivy League.
For Cornell, some of the same disappointing storylines from previous weeks arose once again as the defense allowed 282 yards on the ground. With the Red’s ground game accumulating only 1.1 yards per carry on the afternoon, the Quaker’s defense was largely free to disregard the threat of the run. The Red’s one-dimensional passing attack allowed Penn’s defensive backs to sit back and pick off senior quarterback Nathan Ford three times.[img_assist|nid=33836|title=Going down|desc=Junior linebacker Chris Costello (55) attempts a tackle during the Red’s 23-6 loss to Penn Saturday. Costello racked up a career-high 19 tackles during the game.|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]
“The first thing we did was to take a knee and be thankful for the opportunity we had to be together and to work together,” said head coach Jim Knowles ’87. “…Then after that, I said, ‘There’s no shame in giving your best effort and not being successful. When that happens, it’s just time to keep investing more.’ …That’s what we can do for our seniors to honor them is to keep working extremely hard.”
Penn sophomore running back Michael DiMaggio led the Quakers (6-4, 5-2 Ivy) with 129 yards and a touchdown. However, for the second consecutive week, the Cornell defense allowed the opposing team’s quarterback to rush for nearly 100 yards.
Junior quarterback Brendan McNally tallied 93 yards on the ground — more than the combined 23 yards produced by Cornell running backs, senior Luke Siwula and junior Randy Barbour. McNally entered the game in the first quarter after sophomore quarterback Keiffer Garton left due to injury.
“Keiffer’s been limited in practice, so Brendan’s taken most of the snaps during the week. We didn’t anticipate him having that many snaps,” said Penn head coach Al Bagnoli. “The first time Keiffer carries the ball, he hurts the ankle he hurt against Harvard at the end of the game, and now we have to go with Brendan the rest of the game.”
The Red’s early 3-0 advantage quickly evaporated on a one-yard touchdown run by sophomore fullback Luke DeLuka to cap a 13-play, 59-yard drive. The drive was kept alive when DiMaggio slipped a tackle by senior safety Anthony Sabo in the backfield for a first down on fourth-and-one from the Cornell 36-yard line.
Sophomore kicker Andrew Samson staked Penn to a 10-3 advantage on a 40-yard field with 14 seconds left in the first quarter.
If the Red was going to move the ball down the field, it was going to have to be through the air. In the first half, Ford passed the ball for 119 yards with senior wide receiver Zac Canty accounting for 83 of those yards. Unfortunately for the Red, the Cornell receivers were not the only players feasting on Ford’s passes as Penn junior cornerback Chris Wynn recorded his team-leading fifth interception with 11:13 remaining in the first half.
Penn capitalized off of the turnover with a 37-yard touchdown run by DiMaggio to increase the Quakers’ lead to 17-3.
“For a touchdown, that was the biggest hole I’ve had all year,” DiMaggio said. “I didn’t even get touched. It was great. Coach always stresses north-south running, but when I have a hole, it’s just so much easier. … The offensive line really stepped it up today, did a really good job opening holes and delivering those cutback lanes.”
Sampson’s second field goal right before halftime made it a 20-3 deficit for the Red, which was unable to mount a comeback in the final two quarters of regulation.
Ford, ranked second in school history for completions and attempts, finished the day with 220 passing yards, connecting 24 times on 45 attempts. Canty hauled in 11 passes for 97 yards to pace all receivers, but Cornell’s troubles inside the red zone persisted, as the Red scored only six points on two opportunities inside the 20-yard line.
“Any time you get in the red zone the field shrinks and you have to be more careful with the ball,” Canty said. “Like coach said, they had a good secondary. We seemed to move the ball down the field well and it just seems that throughout the year we just kind of struggled in the red zone a bit. You have to give them credit too.”
Saturday was the first time all season that Cornell was kept out of the end zone at Schoellkopf Field. However, after the game, players were not as concerned about what went wrong in a season that they let slip away. Junior Bryan Walters explained that it will take time to fill the void left by this graduating senior class.
“These guys have been such a valuable part of this program for the last few years,” Walters said. “It is kind of a shock to see all these seniors go. They’ve become my best friends and I can’t picture this program without them. Right not, it’s tough to see these guys go.”