When senior defensive end Zack Imhoff jarred the football loose from the hands of Wagner quarterback Nick Doscher midway through the first, few in the stands at rainy Schoellkopf Field would have predicted that the Cornell defense would go on to record seven more sacks and force three more fumbles. With the ball on the Seahawks’ 20-yard line, sophomore quarterback Jeff Mathews took advantage of the strong field position, connecting with junior fullback Nick Mlady for a four-yard score.
The Red (2-1, 0-1 Ivy League) would not require much more offense, as the defense rebounded from a loss to Yale with a dominating effort over Wagner (1-4, 1-2 Northeast Conference) to earn another home victory, 31-7. The Cornell win showed the vast improvement of Kent Austin’s squad, after the Red lost in a blowout to Wagner, 41-7, on the road to open the head coach’s tenure last season.
“Just another year under our belts,” Imhoff said when asked about the team’s turnaround. “We’ve all got another year of experience, another year under the system. We all believe in the scheme … and ourselves and it all came together.”
“We feel like we’re a completely different team,” Mathews added. “That was my first collegiate action [last year against Wagner] … but this year we felt really confident coming into the game.”
Defensive coordinator Ron McCrone’s unit continued its attack on Doscher, forcing a three-and-out on the ensuing drive, and eventually pushing the signal caller out of the game due to a shoulder injury. Cornell’s special teamers took advantage of the field position, as senior line backer Chris Murray blocked the Wagner punt, handing Mathews the ball just outside the red zone.
“The key all week for us was to start getting after the passer more,” Imhoff explained. “Last week against Yale we didn’t get after the [quarterback] enough, and that strains the whole defense … It all starts up front with us, and the more pressure we can get, the better it is for us.”
After failing to convert on fourth-and-goal, senior kicker Brad Greenway, who doubled as the Red’s punter with freshman Sam Wood out due to illness, converted on a 20-yard field goal to extend the Cornell lead, 10-0.
Mathews benefited once again from Wagner’s special teams struggles, as the Cornell offense took over on the Seahawks’ 37 after A.J. Firestone’s second punt of the afternoon traveled only 23 yards. The sophomore quarterback found senior wide receiver Shane Savage over the middle for another Cornell touchdown, extending the Red’s early lead, 17-0.
For Mathews, playing with a short field was the biggest key for a unit that produced four touchdowns on just under 300 yards of offense.
“This week our defense took field position for us, and when you have a short field and the guys we have on our offense and the way our offensive line is playing, that gives us a lot of confidence to go in and score,” Mathews said.
Facing fourth-and-11 with the ball on Cornell’s 35-yard line, Wagner head coach Jeff Hameline called upon Firestone to punt. After mishandling the snap, Firestone attempted to kick the ball away, only to find that Imhoff was right there preparing for the block. In a series of events that the 31-year head coach called “scary,” Wagner long snapper inexplicably Nick Linehan sprinted toward his own end zone in hopes of creating enough space to throw the ball away. Junior safety Michael Hernandez eventually tackled Linehan at the five-yard line; however, junior wide receiver Luke Tasker handed the ball right back to the Seahawks, fumbling on the Red’s first play of the ensuing drive.
“I didn’t even ask [for an explanation],” Hameline said regarding the play. “I had no idea — I don’t think [Linehan] had any idea what he was doing. We were fortunate to come out of it with a turnover right away.”
“Getting a turnover all the way down at the five-yard line and then turning around and fumbling it, we can’t do those things,” Austin said of Tasker’s miscue. “We have to continue to eliminate our turnovers, and we … didn’t make any turnovers on defense, but on offensively we have to eliminate those mistakes.”
The Red offense finished off the half with another touchdown, as Mathews found Savage in the end zone for the second time on the afternoon to take a commanding 24-0 lead.
“Jeff is so much more comfortable in the pocket,” Savage said when asked about the progression of his quarterback. “His decision-making is outstanding. Our receiving corps has gotten a lot better — we’ve got a lot of young guys stepping up. Kurt Ondash is playing outstanding, so it makes it easier for me and all the other receivers when we have such a strong attack.”
On its second drive of the third quarter, the Red once again began the drive with a shortened field after another fumble forced by the defense. With Matt Misley in at quarterback for the injured Doscher, sophomore linebacker Brent Buehler knocked the ball loose, giving junior linebacker Cody Roberts a chance to recover the fumble on Wagner’s 25-yard line.
Mathews quickly found junior wide receiver Kurt Ondash for a 16-yard gain to set up a one-yard touchdown run of his own to complete the Cornell scoring, 31-0. Ondash continued his emergence in the Cornell offense with a team-best six receptions for 80 yards.
The lone bright spot for the Seahawks was running back Dominique Williams, who rushed for 137 yards, including a one-yard touchdown run to put Wagner on the board early in the fourth quarter, 31-7.
Cornell closed out the game with ease — including another forced fumble by Imhoff, recovered by sophomore defensive end Tre’ Minor — to earn its second win of the season heading into a Week Four matchup with rival Harvard (2-1, 1-0). The Red looks to avenge last year’s 31-17 loss at Harvard when the two teams take the field at 12:30 p.m. on Saturday at Schoellkopf Field.
“It’s definitely a big one,” Mathews said. “We’ve been waiting for Harvard for a long time … We’re ready, and we want to play them bad.”
Original Author: Evan Rich