When the clock on the new Schoellkopf Field scoreboard struck 6:07 p.m. Saturday evening, Cornell became the last team in college football to officially begin its season. The Red (1-0) did not seem to mind the late start, instead using the atmosphere of playing under the lights in front of 14,000 fans against Bucknell (2-1) to its advantage, earning the Homecoming victory, 24-13.
“That’s what college football should be,” said head coach Kent Austin. “It should be an event — have a great game day atmosphere and give the fans a reason to come back. Give them an exciting product and create … a new culture that everyone can be proud of.”
Only minutes after Cornell legend and honorary captain Ed Marinaro ’72 made his way off the field, sophomore running back Grant Gellatly found the end zone to give the Red the early lead at 13:16. With junior wide receiver Luke Tasker in motion, sophomore quarterback Jeff Mathews was able to take the Bucknell defense by surprise, handing the ball off to Gellatly, who finished off the 22-yard run with a celebratory dive past the goal line.
After the Cornell defense forced the Bison into a three-and-out on their first possession, Mathews threw his first interception of the season, picked off by cornerback Bryce Robertson and run back into the end zone. While Bucknell joined Robertson at the goal line to celebrate, a flag was thrown on the field for holding, ultimately negating the score and sending the Bison back to the 34-yard line. This was the first of many costly mistakes for the visitor, as Alex Eckard proceeded to miss a 30-yard field goal attempt, wide right.
“Well obviously the field goal early is one we have to convert on,” said Bucknell head coach Joe Susan. “We had them third-and-1, and it was a designed quarterback sneak, and we went offsides … so you’ve got to settle for three instead of seven. When you’re in the red zone you want to count by sevens, you don’t want to count by threes.”
Mathews capitalized on the missed opportunity by Bucknell, finding Tasker near midfield, where the receiver created separation, burning four Bison defenders before being taken down at the 15-yard line. The 65-yard reception was the first of four catches for Tasker, who posted a team-best 102 yards on the night.
“When we get protection like we did tonight and give our receivers some time downfield to get open and work on [the defense], hopefully this is the result every week,” Mathews said regarding the importance of the passing game in the team’s victory.
After failing to convert on third down, senior kicker Brad Greenway nailed a 32-yard attempt to extend the Cornell lead, 10-0, with 5:25 remaining in the opening quarter.
The long pass to Tasker was the first of three bombs for Mathews, who threw for 332 yards and two touchdowns, despite three turnovers. The last of those turnovers — a third quarter fumble by the QB — resulted in three points on the scoreboard for Bucknell to tie things up, 10-10.
After another Bucknell field goal put the Bison up three, Mathews responded, finding senior wide receiver Shane Savage on the first play of the drive for a 64-yard touchdown reception to take the lead, 17-13.
A 67-yard Bucknell drive into opposition territory left the Bison with a fourth-and-3 chance at the Cornell eight-yard line. Sticking to its offensive strategy, Bucknell kept the ball in quarterback Brandon Wesley’s hands, but the Red defense stayed strong and took the quarterback down in the backfield, with senior end Zack Imhoff leading the charge.
“I think we did a great job against the run,” Austin added, when asked about the performance of his front seven. “We were able to pressure the quarterback more consistently than we were last year.”
After forcing a turnover on downs, Mathews proceeded to hand the ball off on the first two plays of the drive, and most of the remaining fans at Schoellkopf expected the same on third down. Austin, however, decided to take a calculated risk, leaving the ball in Mathews’ hands for what proved to be the exclamation point on a Cornell victory. The sophomore quarterback faked the hand off and waited for junior wide receiver Kurt Ondash to create separation near midfield, where Mathews found his man en route to an 87-yard touchdown catch with 1:13 remaining in the game.
“There’s two options you can take there,” Mathews explained. “We can run the ball and maybe we don’t get it and we can waste a little time, but I love coach Austin because we’re always going to go for it … [Ondash] ran a great route, we had great protection up front, like we did all night, and I threw it up there and he made a great play and went 87 [yards] for it.”
According to Austin, the two most crucial categories for any college football team are turnovers and big plays. While the Red dominated the passing game, it lost the turnover battle, 3-1; however, Mathews noted the importance of the Cornell defense in limiting the damage that could have resulted from those errors.
“When you lose the turnover battle like we did, it’s hard to get wins,” the former Ivy League Rookie of the Year said. “[The defense] stepped up, they played huge and allowed us to come back and make some big plays and get the ‘W’.”
Austin’s defensive line applied heavy pressure on Bucknell’s mobile quarterback, with junior tackle Hugh Stewart registering two early sacks and Imhoff taking the signal caller down in the backfield on the final drive of the game. In total, the Cornell defense limited Wesley and running backs Tyler Smith and Jeremiah Young to 59 yards on the ground. Senior cornerback Rashad Campbell made his presence felt on defense and on special teams, leading the team with seven unassisted tackles (11 total) and 108 yards on four kick returns.
Despite the strong personal numbers, Campbell humbly pointed to the blocks set by teammates on returns and complemented the younger members of the secondary when asked about the defense’s success in limiting Bucknell’s passing game.
“[Junior cornerback DeMarr Moulton] really showed up today … He was on his guy and he was in the right place at the right time, and made tackles even when they did catch the ball,” Campbell noted. “[Freshmen cornerbacks Aaron Hancock and Michael Turner] got in there and they were a little nervous, but once they settled down … they got in position and made plays.”
Campbell, whom Austin labeled the team’s best all-around player during training camp, remained modest after the win, emphasizing the need to stay hungry and continue playing with the same intensity for the entire season.
“It’s great to have the momentum, but the tale is always that Cornell football starts strong and then we don’t know how to finish,” he said. “I’m a little tired of the [predictions] … I just want to play football. I don’t really want to talk too much to the commentators because we’ve got to prove it on the field. There’s not too much we can say, we’ve just got to go out there and be strong.”
Original Author: Evan Rich