Six thousand one hundred and twenty-eight fans poured into sunny Schoellkopf Field on Saturday afternoon to send off the senior class in its final home game, but it was sophomore quarterback Jeff Mathews who stole the show. Mathews rewrote the Cornell record books, completing 40-of-46 passes for five touchdowns on 521 yards, leading the Red to victory in an offensive battle against Columbia, 62-41.
The Cornell defense bounced back after allowing five touchdowns in the opening half, limiting the winless Lions (0-9, 0-6 Ivy League) to seven points after the break. Mathews did the rest for the Red (4-5, 2-4), finding senior wide receiver Shane Savage in the end zone three times — tying the school mark for touchdown receptions in a game — en route to 34 points in the second half. The 62-point effort represents a modern era record for Cornell, dating back to the inception of Ivy League football in 1956.
“It’s huge,” Mathews said after the Senior Day victory. “[The seniors] have helped me so much from my freshman year to now … It means a lot because you want to remember Cornell the right way, and you always tend to remember how you finish.”
After the first quarter, early indications were that the second official Empire State Bowl would be a defensive struggle. The Red punted away on its opening drive and appeared to force a three-and-out on the ensuing Columbia possession; however, a roughing the kicker penalty allowed Sean Brackett and the Lions offense to march down the field. Columbia running back Griffin Lowry scored the game’s first points, finding the end zone on a four-yard rush to take the early lead, 7-0.
Mathews responded, completing four passes on a drive that ended with a two-yard touchdown run by junior wide receiver Luke Tasker on a reverse play. The sophomore quarterback connected on his first 13 passes of the game — one shy of the Cornell record set by Nathan Ford ’09. Mathews also eclipsed Ford’s mark for completions in a game, edging him out by one.
The Ivy foes traded touchdowns early in the second quarter, leaving the score tied, 21-21, with 5:46 remaining in the half.
“Jeff is just a really good player, and he’s got good players around him,” said head coach Kent Austin. “It always takes 11 players for any one to perform, but Jeff was just as accurate, and had as good a decision-making day, as a quarterback that I’ve been around has had in a long time.”
With just under two minutes remaining, neither squad could produce any defensive schemes to stop the opposing offense. Brackett led the Lions 80 yards down the field in just 1:28, finding wide receiver Kurt Williams for the second of three touchdowns on the day. The Lions remained down by one after kicker Luke Eddy missed the extra point, wide left. Williams compiled 191 yards on 12 receptions, racking up nearly half of Brackett’s 409 yards through the air.
Cornell was even more efficient with its two-minute offense on the field, putting together a 62-yard drive, capped off by a 24-yard touchdown pass from Mathews to junior wide receiver Kurt Ondash.
The wild end to the half continued when a squib kick by senior kicker and punter Brad Greenway was deflected in Cornell territory, handing the Lions the ball on the Red’s 40-yard line. Brackett continued his strong first half, regaining the lead before the half, 34-28, on a touchdown pass to tight end Hamilton Garner.
“[Brackett] played a great game, Williams played a great game and they have play-makers on both sides of the ball,” Austin said. “Their quarterback is a real competitor — he’s a lot like [Jeff Mathews] — very, very competitive … I like really competitive players, and he’s one of the most competitive in this league.”
Austin changed up the defensive game plan after his squad surrendered five touchdowns to the Lions in the opening half. The Red allowed only score in the remaining 30 minutes of play — a touchdown to Williams with time winding down and the game out of reach late in the fourth quarter.
“We weren’t playing well obviously in the first half, and we made some adjustments at half time,” said senior defensive end Zack Imhoff, who moved into fourth place on Cornell’s all-time sacks list after Saturday’s win. “We really tried to stop the pass, and that’s what we did in the second half. We changed the packages, mixed things up … Up front we just keep getting after it, and we know we’ll get our chances.”
The Red was unable to take advantage of strong field position in its opening possession of the second half, settling for a 45-yard field goal from Greenway to cut the deficit to three, 34-31; however, the Lions did little to stop Mathews and the Cornell offense from that point forward. Defensive coordinator Ron McCrone’s unit responded to the halftime adjustments, forcing consecutive three-and-outs to open the third quarter. Mathews found Savage downfield on back-to-back drives for long touchdowns of 47 and 46 yards, respectively to take the lead, 45-34.
The duo connected once again for a 28-yard score following another successful field goal by Greenway, who moved into third place on Cornell’s all-time scoring list after accounting for 14 points on Saturday afternoon.
Freshman safety Rush Miller provided the exclamation point with a 65-yard interception return for a touchdown, earning Cornell its first Senior Day victory since a 20-point victory over the Lions on Nov. 10, 2007.
“Ever since I’ve been here, I don’t know if we’ve gotten a win on Senior Day, so this was huge for us. It feels great to send everybody off with a win, and … I’ll probably be coming back, so it’s not my end,” Savage said, referring to his fifth-year eligibility for next season.
The Red closes out the 2011 campaign in Philadelphia, Pa. on Saturday at 1 p.m. against the Penn Quakers (5-4, 4-2).
Original Author: Evan Rich