By JOHN ZAKOUR
Forget FiveThirtyEight and ESPN, the Cornell-Columbia football game represents all that’s great about college football. On a beautiful Manhattan day, a 0-8 Columbia and losers of 19 in a row played a 0-8 Cornell. It was supposed to be an awful game between two bad teams, seemingly evenly matched. Columbia’s last win was 19 games ago over Cornell at home. This was a winnable game for each and a chance to avoid a winless season. It was like the opposite of the 2011 Alabama LSU game, a supposed classic between two great teams with everything on the line. The final score was 9-6 in overtime and the game not particularly exciting. On the other hand, Cornell and Columbia produced one of the most entertaining games I’ve ever seen.
Yes the teams were so bad that even ESPN picked up on the novelty of it. And FiveThirtyEight, the brainchild of Nate Silver that so accurately predicted the 2014 elections, ran a piece on it calling it the “Worst of College Football.” I can summarize the article for you very quickly — the stats say Cornell and Columbia suck at football. According to the statistics, the Red and the Lions really suck. At everything. Except punting, for whatever reason.
In the game itself, Columbia lived up to its reputation early, falling behind, 21-0. The rout was on! But the Lions were able to get together and score a touchdown to bring it within 14. And when a Cornell long snap sailed over punter Chris Fraser’s head, things really got wild. Fraser tried to kick the football out of the back of the end zone for a safety, but was penalized for “illegal kicking,” (haven’t heard that one before), setting up the Lions in the red zone. Columbia was able to convert and make it a one score game. Game on, routs off.
The craziness really hit a peak in the second half. After another Lions score to tie it up, a seemingly normal kickoff was too short for the Cornell return man to handle. As he sprinted to play the ball, it bounced backwards, allowing Columbia to recover its own kickoff. Not an onside kick. Columbia was able to recover their own ball, giving themselves great field position, field position it subsequently squandered during its first play from scrimmage. The Lions quarterback dropped back and threw an interception. Then, Cornell was backed up and then threw a pick.
Ok, catch your breath here. So Columbia finally converts on a fourth down in the process and scores to go up, 27-21. But that’s not even the craziest part. The extra point, normally a mere formality, is blocked and run back the length of the field for a rare two point safety, making it a four point game in a game featuring all touchdowns, 27-23.
Luke Hagy puts the Red up for good on a long touchdown run, Cornell’s third long score of the day, after running into his own lineman. After exchanging punts, Columbia has a chance to win the game down three. Despite the game featuring four touchdowns apiece, Columbia needs a touchdown to win because of its blocked extra point. And Columbia looks as frantic as ever on offense. The most unusual conversion of the drive, in which two Columbia receivers are both close enough to the ball to catch it, and I’m still not sure if the receiver who caught it was the intended one. It’s a hectic drive and a fitting conclusion to the game. Finally, Columbia has a fourth and 11 that looks to decide the game. The quarterback scrambles, looks downfield and throws it away out of bounds. A throwaway on fourth down. An illogical conclusion. And in a three point game, it’s a missed extra point that decides it, leaving Cornell with the win and the Empire Bowl title.
I paid money to watch this game live online. Why? Because it was awesome. Let’s reflect here. A game between two teams that combined for 0-16 had an illegal kicking penalty, six turnovers, a recovered kick off, a blocked extra point and subsequent two point run back, ends on a fourth down throwaway. I might go my whole life without ever seeing this in a football game again. Cornell and Columbia, two ancient rivals who first met in 1889, played a classic in Manhattan. No, it wasn’t the pinnacle of college football. But it was a blast. As someone who’s watched a bunch of football games on Saturdays (including the huge Alabama-Mississippi State clash), I can honestly say that it was one of the most entertaining football games I’ve ever seen. It might not have been the best played game. In fact, I can definitely say it wasn’t. But it was a beautiful embodiment of all of college sports.
At the FCS level of college football, no Ivy League teams participate in the playoff even if they’re deserving. In reality, an Ivy League team never had a shot at the title. In some respects, the football is always meaningless. So what is Ivy League football about then? It’s about true student athletes, in a league that doesn’t even offer scholarships for sports, playing for the love of the game and pride. It’s about continuing ancient rivalries and games between future lawyers, doctors, businessmen and leaders. But it’s good enough that NFL players, including some really good ones, have played in the Ivy League.
So when FiveThirtyEight came along, they missed the point entirely. They just pointed at the sideshow. But this game was more than that. It was a group of guys honestly giving it their all and producing a great game game.