The Penn Quakers are Ivy League Champions again. Senior backup quarterback Andrew Holland led touchdown drives in the final minutes of each half and Cornell came eight yards shy of forcing overtime on its last gasp as Penn escaped with a 35-28 triumph in the 2012 finale Saturday on Schoellkopf Field.
Penn (6-4, 6-1 Ivy) secured its sixth outright title of the young century, while Cornell (4-6, 2-5) suffered its third straight loss to end the season a game under .500. Red third-year head coach Kent Austin said he regrets that his 24 seniors, who were honored with their relatives before the contest, could not leave the program on a winning note.
“My disappointment for them is really hard to put into words,” Austin said. “They are guys that have put a lot of time and effort and commitment and sacrifice into this program, and haven’t had a lot of success. We’ve had our moments in the last couple years, but I really, really wanted them to go out with a win.”
At first, it seemed like a victory might have been out of the question. The Red received the opening kickoff for the ninth time in the season’s 10 games, but the offense committed its fourth first-drive turnover of the year on a failed trick play. Junior quarterback and offensive co-captain Jeff Mathews threw a lateral pass to junior receiver Grant Gellatly, who couldn’t hang on and Penn fell on the live ball.
“That’s just a play we practiced and I should’ve caught the ball,” said Gellatly, who finished with six catches for 141 yards and a touchdown, his fifth game in 2012 over the century mark. “We stressed trying not to make it a lateral. It’s just one of those things that you have to avoid and we made that mistake.”
Two plays later, Quakers senior running back Jeff Jack followed a 34-yard completion with a one-yard touchdown run for a 7-0 Penn lead barely two minutes into the game.
But the Red battled back to create an evenly played first half. Each team totaled exactly 200 yards of offense, scored two touchdowns, committed one turnover and converted only 1-of-6 third downs before intermission. Penn held a one-point advantage, 14-13, because the Red missed its third extra point of the season following a 65-yard touchdown bomb from Mathews to Gellatly — Cornell’s answer to Jack’s opening score.
For the third week in a row, the Cornell defense surrendered a backbreaking score in the last minute of the first half. The Quakers marched 89 yards in just 57 seconds, capped by Holland’s 41-yard hanging pass that wound up in the arms of senior wide receiver Jason Seifert in the end zone. The score gave Penn back the lead with 26 ticks left in the second quarter.
Penn ran with the momentum on the first possession of the second half. Senior tailback Lyle Marsh broke loose for a 55-yard touchdown run four plays after the break to extend the Quakers lead, 21-13. Marsh ended with 111 rushing yards on 19 carries, as Penn wore down a Cornell defense that had bottled up Marsh and Jack for a combined 22 first-half yards on 13 tries.
“We just didn’t take [Marsh] down — he had a couple of broken tackles on [the touchdown] in particular and that’s how he got the bulk of his yards,” said Red freshman safety Bobby Marani, who sparked the defense with a team-leading 11 tackles and two sacks.
Austin praised Marani, who came on late in the season as the Red shuffled around the defensive lineup.
“I love that young man. He is exactly the type of football player we want and need here at Cornell,” Austin said. “He’s a real football player. That guy is going to be an outstanding player — one of the better players in this league.”
Marani spearheaded a rare Red pass rush, as the defense brought down Holland four times to establish its season sack total at 14. Still, Holland performed admirably in place of injured starter Billy Ragone, completing 18-of-22 passes for 255 yards, a touchdown and one second-quarter interception to Red cornerback Jarrod Watson-Lewis for the freshman’s third pick in two weeks.
Holland also snuck for a one-yard rushing score late in the third quarter to stretch the Penn lead, 28-13, as the Quakers capitalized on a muffed punt return by Red senior wide receiver and special teams co-captain Luke Tasker. That miscue followed a Mathews interception for Cornell’s third turnover of the game, its 12th in the three-game skid and 20th in 2012.
The Red, however, didn’t say goodbye to the season without first showing some fight. Mathews directed a 12-play, 65-yard touchdown drive over 6:42, including conversions on third-and-2, third-and-21 and third-and-6. Freshman running back Luke Hagy punched it in from two yards out to cut the deficit to 28-20 with 12:13 remaining.
Hagy carried 15 times for 69 yards, caught seven balls for 83 yards and scored three rushing touchdowns to wrap up a stellar rookie campaign.
Marani then came through with a clutch play on third-and-3 from the Cornell 40-yard line, busting through the Quakers protection to sack Holland for a six-yard loss. On the ensuing possession, Mathews heaved a 47-yard pass to Gellatly up the sideline on second-and-20 and Tasker was interfered with in the end zone on fourth-and-10 from the Penn 31 to keep the drive alive.
On the next play, a roughing the passer penalty negated a would-be game-sealing interception. The Red relished its second opportunity, as Hagy took a handoff left side for an eight-yard touchdown run to finish off the 80-yard drive with 2:57 to play. A low snap on the massive two-point conversion didn’t bother Mathews, who completed an out route to Tasker to knot the game at 28-all and pump up the Senior Day crowd.
“With the guys we have, we never try to dwell on the past. We’re always trying to look forward,” Gellatly said. “We pick each other up on the sideline and we always just try to focus on the next play.”
But the next few plays after the game-tying score did not go in the Red’s favor. A poorly executed squib kick set up the Quakers with good field position and the visitors took just two minutes to find the end zone. Holland completed passes of 10, 17 and 21 yards to place the ball at the Cornell 3, where Penn sophomore running back Spencer Kulcsar sprinted in for a tiebreaking score, 35-28, with one minute flat to play.
“I’ll take the blame for [the kickoff] — I knew better,” Austin said. “That’s a mistake by me, we should’ve kicked it deep and see what happened. They got the ball on the [37-yard line] and we’ve still got to dig in and get them off the field. We didn’t get them off the field the whole second half.”
The Red had 56 seconds and one timeout to work for a re-tying score. Cornell overcame a 10-yard holding penalty when Mathews pump-faked and hit Tasker on the numbers for a 51-yard gain to the Penn 8. The hosts then called their last timeout with 16.5 seconds remaining.
Cornell committed another costly penalty, this time a chop block that backed up the Red all the way to the Quakers 28 with 9.8 ticks left. Mathews fired a pass in the middle of the field to senior wide receiver Kurt Ondash, who picked up 20 of the 28 necessary yards before Penn tackled him and the clock expired as the Ivy Champs celebrated.
The referees flagged Cornell 10 times for 107 yards, both season highs.
“The penalties definitely killed us,” Gellatly said. “We got the shot we needed … and unfortunately it’s just one of those things that cost us.”
“More than half of [the penalties] were in scoring territory,” Austin said. “If we didn’t go backwards, this game [would’ve gone to] overtime. Yo
u can’t have that happen when you’re trying to get into overtime — not against a good football team.”
Mathews was 31-of-45 for 445 yards with a touchdown and interception. Last year’s Ivy League Offensive Player of the Year secured his second straight 3,000-yard season and became the second Ivy quarterback in history to surpass 8,000 career yards.
Tasker recorded a reception for the 30th game in a row in his final collegiate outing, finishing with six grabs for 110 yards. He led the Ivy League this season in catches (75) and yards (1,207) while tying for the most touchdowns (8).
Tasker is one of the seniors Austin credits for changing the culture of Cornell football. The senior class compiled a 13-27 career record, but the players graduating in May instilled belief in the program, Austin said.
“They have bought into understanding that to change the culture, you have to change the expectations,” he said. “You do that through your work ethic, how you prepare, how you relate to your teammates, how you relate to your coaches, how you study film, how you lift in the offseason — all of those things to try to reestablish an ethos here of high expectations. Although they haven’t had a lot of wins, I think they’ve brought the team a long way in those areas.”
Still, Austin could not help but vent about the unfortunate way in which the 2012 season ended — with three consecutive defeats to drag the team’s record one game below last year’s.
“The frustration level is about as high as it’s ever been for me since I’ve been here,” Austin said. “The streak at the end and our overall record is unacceptable, period. And I’m responsible for that. We have to find a way to win football games and that’s on the head coach.”
Original Author: Quintin Schwab