November 20, 2011

FOOTBALL | Mathews Shocks Penn, Breaks Ivy Passing Record

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It is safe to say that Cornell football is relevant again. After the Red (5-5, 3-4 Ivy League) shredded the defense of two-time defending Ivy League champion Penn (5-5, 4-3) to earn a hard-fought victory on Saturday, 48-38, the program finished .500 for the first time since 2007. And with a bundle of players returning at key positions in 2012, the sky seems to be the limit entering head coach Kent Austin’s third year.

Cornell quarterback Jeff Mathews continued his magic, completing 35-of-45 passes for 548 yards and five touchdowns — an Ivy yardage record and the sophomore’s second consecutive 500-yard performance with five scores.

“To look at [the statistics], it seems pretty crazy, but honestly we just executed,” Mathews said. “We didn’t do anything spectacular in either of those games.”

But spectacular might be just the right word to describe Cornell’s offensive performance. Junior wide receiver Luke Tasker came up nine yards short of being the fourth Red player with 100 receiving yards against the Quakers. Senior wide receiver Shane Savage, who will likely fulfill his fifth-year eligibility in 2012, caught seven passes for 149 yards and three touchdowns. Junior wide receiver Kurt Ondash followed suit with 10 receptions for 197 yards, and sophomore running back Grant Gellatly produced 106 yards and a score through the air.

“Our receivers made great plays and the line up front was great,” Mathews said. “At the end of the day, we just executed our game plan. Coach Austin and all the coaches had a great game plan for us, and to be honest, it feels like we were consistent and able to execute and I was a benefactor of that.”

While Mathews deflects the praise off himself, Austin gives at least some of the credit to his quarterback, who broke the Ancient Eight single-season yardage record on a 32-yard throw to Gellatly. The tailback tip-toed along the sideline for a touchdown in the last minute of the third quarter that put the Red up, 34-31 — one of five second-half lead changes.

“[Mathews] is not just a special player — he’s a special young man,” Austin said. “This guy is as first-class as any individual you’ll ever be around. He cares, he’s committed, he’s talented and he’s tough. He’s just a great player — that was an MVP performance the last couple weeks.”

Even so, the game did not begin well for Mathews and the Red. Tasker fumbled the opening kick-off, which Penn junior quarterback Billy Ragone turned into a touchdown five plays later on an eight-yard rush. After Tasker redeemed himself with a 17-yard touchdown catch to knot the score, 7-7, Quakers senior linebacker Erik Rask got a hand on a Mathews pass in the flat, tipped the ball up to himself and ran it back 32 yards for a score.

The sophomore coolly bounced back on third-and-3 and launched a pass downfield to Savage, who eluded a tackler to finish the last third of a 62-yard touchdown that tied the contest, 14-14. The Red’s quick-strike ability on offense boosted the confidence of the defense, which dragged out Penn’s drives by refusing to let up big plays.

“Jeff and the offense bounced back, and we were confident that they would move the ball like they had done all year,” said senior cornerback Rashad Campbell, who put a fitting cap on his collegiate career in his final homecoming to Philadelphia, Pa., picking off two Ragone passes and recording eight tackles. “We’re a new Cornell — it’s exciting to know we can come back and still make plays. Even though [Penn] had the momentum for most of the game, we knew [the Cornell offense] wouldn’t go away.”

The Red once again immediately responded to a Penn touchdown drive (14 plays, 72 yards) with another passing score from Mathews to Savage — this time over the middle from seven yards out — tying the game, 21-21. Shortly before halftime, a 35-yard field goal from Penn freshman kicker Conner Loftus regained the hosts’ the lead, 24-21.

Cornell’s defense picked up the intensity to start the second half, stopping Penn’s first three possessions without points. On the last drive, Red senior linebacker Brandon Lainhart stuffed Quakers junior running back Brandon Colavita on fourth-and-1 from the Cornell 44 yard-line.

It took only two plays — a 54-yard strike over the top from Mathews to Ondash and a one-yard rush by senior tight end Ryan Houska — for Cornell to reclaim the lead.

“[Penn] blitzed a lot, so our receivers were getting open quickly because they were single covered,” Campbell said. “Jeff was recognizing coverages, the offensive line was adjusting to try to protect him and the receivers were making deep plays when they needed to.”

The snap on the extra point was botched, leaving the score a three-point lead for the visitors, 27-24, with 4:33 remaining in the third quarter. Nonetheless, fifth-year senior Brad Greenway became the all-time points leader for kickers at Cornell and the first player in school history to lead the team in scoring four straight seasons.

The Red forced a punt on Penn’s next possession, but Quakers senior defensive back Matt Hamscher jarred the ball loose from Mathews, and on the next play, Ragone hit sophomore wide receiver Ryan Mitchell for a seven-yard touchdown.

After Gellatly’s acrobatic touchdown briefly handed the Red the advantage, 34-31, Ragone finished a rapid scoring drive with a four-yard run early in the fourth quarter. Mathews then hooked up with Ondash for a 64-yard pass down to the Penn 16, but a Red penalty, two incompletions and a mishandled snap on an field goal attempt gave the ball back to Penn for an opportunity to cement its lead.

Instead, Campbell hopped in front of Ragone’s pass on the second play to intercept the ball on the Quakers 27 — the Red’s first turnover of the game. Then, on fourth-and-2 from the 19, Mathews delivered a 16-yard bullet to Ondash. Freshman running back Ahmad Avery followed with a three-yard rush for his first career touchdown, a score that gave Cornell the lead for good, 41-38, with 9:15 to play.

“[The defense] has given up a lot of yards and points and such, but they’ve made so many plays to put us in a position to win games,” Mathews said. “They’ve played great all year and at the end of the day the last two weeks, they stepped up and made the plays to allow us to win the game.”

On the ensuing drive, Penn chewed 7:44 off the clock to make its way to the Cornell 26-yard line on 10 plays, but Savage snuck around the edge and blocked a potential game-tying 43-yard field goal from Loftus.

Savage was not finished. Instead of running time off the clock on the ground, Cornell elected to throw on third-and-2 from the Penn 16. Mathews found Savage to extend the Red lead, 48-38, and ice the game with 1:28 to play. The score earned Savage a school-record 12 touchdowns on the season.

“[The offense] came out with its foot on the pedal in every game this season,” Campbell said. “People said, ‘That was a pretty gutsy move by your coach to throw the ball to Savage in the end zone,’ but that’s how we play. We don’t want to play conservative — we want to play to win. That’s how we play every game, even from [the first game of the season] against Bucknell when we threw that long ball to Ondash. I really appreciate the dedication to that from our coaching staff.”

The ideology has certainly paid off in only two years under Austin. When the Red returns nine starters from its record-breaking offense and eight defensive starters in 2012, could Cornell possibly be the Ivy League favorites heading into next season?

“We still have to go out there and beat the Top-3 teams in the League — [Harvard, Yale and Brown],” Campbell said. “Whatever the case may be, we still have to earn it. Coach [Austin] talks about leaving the program better than you found it. To leave the team 5-5 and know we were a couple of plays away from winning more games, this team is better off than we [seniors] found it.”

“Right now where our program is, we’re on a huge upward slope and we’re climbing to the top,” Mathews added. “I don’t know if we’re going to be the favorites or not, but regardless, that’s not going to affect our preparation and how we go about this off-season and get ready for next year.”

Original Author: Quintin Schwab