HAMILTON, N.Y. — Sitting in the locker room, trailing by 19 points against a nationally ranked opponent, the men of Cornell football knew what they had to do: play the best football of their lives to stun No. 25 Colgate at home.
The team, against all odds, accomplished the feat. The Red shocked the Raiders, 39-38, in front of Colgate’s Homecoming crowd. The team trailed early, falling into a 28-5 hole, but remarkable play from all sides of the ball propelled Cornell to its first road win over a ranked team since 1950.
“[At halftime] Jake Waltman brought us up and said, ‘This is the moment you’re going to be looking at 10 or 15 years down the road and say we had the biggest comeback we’ve ever had and we’re going to prove it today,’” said senior wide receiver Collin Shaw. “Everyone rallied around that before the half and it gave us so much momentum going into the second half.”
“We said, ‘Hey, no matter what happens, we’re going to win the game,’” said head coach David Archer ’05. “We stuck to it and they just kept making plays and it was just a day I’ll never forget.”
Even when facing a 23-point deficit, the players maintained a high-level of confidence throughout the game.
“We never lost the expectation that this was our game,” said sophomore linebacker Reis Seggebruch. “Our coaches stayed on us and even at halftime no one lost the faith. Everyone kept fighting like we knew it was our game to win.”
One of the defining moments of the game came late in the third quarter. Sophomore quarterback Dalton Banks fired a pass to junior wide receiver James Hubbard. The underthrown ball was batted up in the air by a leaping Colgate defender, leading to one of the most exciting moments of the 2016 season.
For a second the ball seemed to hang there, suspended in space, then Hubbard reached out and snagged it. Cutting inside past two defenders, he raced off to the end zone, trimming the Colgate lead to five and quieting the home crowd that had been so raucous only moments early.
“I was thinking, ‘It’s about time,’” Archer said of Hubbard’s catch. “When you work hard, you get lucky and you get breaks. These kids in the program deserve that one.”
Right when it seemed like the Red had regained the momentum following a huge Cornell stop on fourth down late in the fourth quarter, Banks overthrew Shaw way down field and the ball floated right into the hands of Colgate’s Adam Bridgeforth. But an impressive stop from the Red gave the ball back to the offense, a pattern that came to light as the game progressed.
Yet on fourth down, Banks was picked off again, giving the ball back to the Raiders with four minutes left.
But again, Cornell’s defense played at its best when it mattered most. On fourth and inches, the defense stuffed a rush attempt by the Raiders.
And that was when Banks went to work. With surgical precision, the sophomore orchestrated a hurry-up drive down the field.
“You know you have to execute,” Banks said. “The clock is in the back of your head. We had no timeouts and we had to get out of bounds.”
“Coach Archer had a smile on his face. He came over and he pointed to the two-minute menu and said, ‘Here, we go. We have enough time,’” Shaw said of his coach’s plan for the game’s final drive. “Strategically, we were able to get the ball back on our 40 and thought, ‘This is just like practice.’”
On first and 10 from the 19-yard line, Banks launched a pass into the back of the end zone and into the outstretched arms of Shaw.
After an instant replay review confirmed the catch, Cornell players on the sideline exploded in celebration.
“It can’t get much better than this,” Hubbard said. “I think that was probably the best game I’ve played in. I’m so excited for our team, such a big win for us.”
The game played out remarkably similarly to last year’s home loss to the Raiders. In that game, Cornell trailed early but began to put together a comeback late in the game. However, it was too little too late, and the Red lost, dropping to 0-3 on the season
“Everything is different,” Hubbard said when asked about the contrasts between this year and last year. “Our seniors talk about resilience. I think that shows, we just know that we’re going to win. We expect to win now. We just have the confidence to go out there and do what we do.”
Again like last year, Cornell started off slow, giving up 21 points in the first quarter while Colgate’s dominant defense locked down the Red.
Pinned at its own one-yard line to start its first drive, the Raiders used a couple of runs to create some room to work with, then quarterback Jake Melville found John Maddaluna 10 yards down the field. Maddaluna burst past Cornell’s defenders and sprinted 93 yards for the score, putting Colgate in the lead just under five minutes into the game.
Melville was dominant all day, completing 23 of 37 passes while throwing for 399 yards and three scores. He also showed off his talents as runner, rushing for 80 yards, good enough for second most on the team.
On the ensuing drive, Banks was picked off and Colgate immediately took advantage. Similarly to the previous drive, a hyper aggressive Cornell secondary gambled, lost and paid the price as Melville again connected on short pass to Maddaluna. Once again, Maddaluna took advantage of the Red’s sloppy defensive play to run 51 yards untouched into the end zone.
After the Raiders forced another Cornell punt, Colgate muscled down the field and scored again, placing the Red in a 21-point hole.
“[The Raiders] are explosive,” Archer said. “Colgate is really good and if you miss a gap, they’re gone. That’s what was happening.”
Cornell got on the board in the most unlikely of ways. After senior punter Chris Fraser pinned the Raiders at their own four-yard with a masterful 34-yard kick, junior linebacker Kurt Frimel tracked down Melville and sacked the quarterback in the end zone for a safety.
Those two points, while seemingly insignificant when trailing by 21, would prove to be the difference maker in the one-point victory.
Following the Raiders’ kickoff, Cornell put together its best offensive possession of the day, but a penalty in the endzone derailed the drive and the Red settled for a field goal.
“We were doing well between the red zones and moving the ball well,” Banks said. “We just couldn’t finish and execute. We would stall out here and there.”
Colgate answered the Red’s pair of scores with yet another throw and catch from Melville to Maddaluna. The wide receiver finished with 261 yards receiving, the most receiving yards by an opponent in the history of Cornell’s program.
The Red continued to hang around in the second quarter when Banks fired downfield to Shaw. The wide receiver got a step on his defender, snagged a well-thrown pass from Banks, then outran Colgate’s defense to score the Red’s first touchdown of the game.
It was one of four passing touchdowns on the day for the quarterback who, in just his third ever start, passed for 454, the eighth-most passing yards in school history and the most since the days of Jeff Mathews ’13.
At the end of the half, Cornell made a great goal line stand to keep the Raiders out of the end zone. Colgate connected on a field goal to go in the locker room up 19.
The impressive stop would be a harbinger of things to come. Late in the game, the Red’s defense made a series of timely stands against Colgate’s high-powered offense. Late in the third quarter, the Red held the Raiders scoreless on their final six drives, including two turnovers on downs.
“Hats off to our defense in the second half and stoning them so hard,” Shaw said. “They gave us all the momentum going in. They played their asses off.”
With No. 19 Harvard — the only other undefeated Ivy League team — waiting next week, the Red will enter the game with confidence at an all time high.
“We definitely are going to be way more confident.” Frimel said. “We are going to feel very good about our game plan, knowing we can execute against the best, which we have shown. That’s just going to improve our confidence here on out to do bigger and better things.”