After an exhilarating comeback left Cornell with a chance to make up another 21-point deficit, the Red fell just short — its second half charge was just “too little, too late,” as head coach David Archer ’05 put it.
The Red (3-2, 1-1 Ivy) lost 31-24 to Sacred Heart, who improved to 4-1 on the season. The loss is the second straight for Cornell and the team’s first against a non-league opponent this season.
The Red struggled defensively in this one, allowing big play after big play in the first half. On the other side of the ball, sophomore quarterback Dalton Banks had trouble dealing with an aggressive Sacred Heart pass rush that sent at least five pass rushers on nearly every play.
Banks finished the game completing just 15 of his 38 pass attempts for 117 yards with an interception and taking five sacks in the process.
But he did run the ball effectively, rushing for 113 yards on 15 attempts including a touchdown. According to the sophomore, Banks did not plan to run so often, but said he saw some holes and took advantage of them.
“They played pretty good coverage and then blitzed off the edges,” Banks said. “There was a lot of room to scramble so when I had room I tried to make a play on my feet to keep the chains moving. … Sometimes you’ve gotta throw the ball, sometimes you’ve gotta run it and sometimes you’ve gotta do a little of both.”
Aside from Banks, Cornell also had success running the ball out of the backfield. Held out of the game with an undisclosed injury, sophomore Chris Walker did not play, but classmate J.D. PicKell and junior Jack Gellatly filled in nicely. The two combined for 176 yards and two scores.
PicKell gave credit to his offensive line for the running backs’ succes.
“We have, in my opinion, the best offensive line in the Ivy League, if not the country,” PicKell said. “Those guys all did a great job today, opening up holes for me and Jack — and Dalton even.”
Yet, in spite of the team’s success on the ground, a 21-point deficit was too much for Cornell to make up.
After an uneventful opening few minutes, Sacred Heart fumbled the ball on its own 14 in the game’s first big play. Sophomore linebacker Malcolm Chaka jumped on the football, and on the very next play, Gellatly ran in for the score to give the Red the early lead.
On the ensuing kickoff, the Pioneers took the ball all the way to the Cornell 22-yard line, setting up an easy touchdown run for Sacred Heart running back Nate Chavious, and just like that, the game was knotted up at seven.
On Sacred Heart’s next offensive series, big plays once again proved costly for the Cornell defense. A 67-yard rush set up the second Chavious touchdown of the quarter, and Sacred Heart took its first lead of the game. Cornell’s defense had already allowed over 100 yards rushing at the end of just one quarter.
Junior safety Nick Gesualdi said he felt the defense missed some key tackles that led to the big plays.
“We had some busted plays in the beginning of the game,” Gesualdi said. “We just didn’t make the tackles we needed to, and they opened up some good holes. We have to work on our tackling.”
Early in the second quarter, Sacred Heart’s quarterback R.J. Noel found a wide open Ose Imeokparia on a seam route that went 58 yards for another Pioneer touchdown. The Red rushed just three on the play but still could not prevent the third huge play of the half.
Each team added a field goal before halftime, leaving the Red down 24-10 at the break.
Despite the deficit, the message in the locker room was generally positive, according to PicKell.
“We’ve been down before,” the sophomore said. “We were down three, four touchdowns at Colgate. We knew we had it in us to do it.”
That resilience has been present in each of the team’s games so far this year. On Saturday, it was no different.
“We’ve done a really good job of keeping our heads up and understanding that it’s not over until the whistle blows,” Gesualdi said. “We know we can come back.”
Coming out of the half, each team punted on its first drive, but on Sacred Heart’s second possession, it converted on a big third down to put the game farther out of reach.
On a third-and-five on Cornell’s side of the field, Noel threw a screen pass to Andrew O’Neill, who broke what looked like a sure tackle and ran all the way to the end zone for another Sacred Heart touchdown. Junior CB Jelani King was there for the tackle short of the first down but simply could not bring O’Neill to the ground. The Pioneers led 31-10, and the game seemed all but over.
After another empty offensive possession, it was time for the Cornell defense to make a play, and for the second time in the game, it came through.
After a Chris Fraser punt pushed Sacred Heart back to its own three, Noel’s first-down pass was intercepted by sophomore linebacker Ryan Kelley. The Red took over at the Sacred Heart eight-yard line.
On fourth-and-goal from the two-yard line, Archer chose to go for it, and on a toss left to PicKell, the California-native was able to find the end zone for six — the first second half points the Pioneers had given up all year. The Red trailed 31-17 after freshman Nick Null’s extra point — playing in place of Zach Mays, who is no longer on the roster.
On the ensuing possession, Gesualdi came up with his second interception of the game, again giving the Red the ball in plus territory. However, the drive stalled out and the team punted away.
On Sacred Heart’s first possession of the fourth quarter, Noel made yet another poor decision, this time throwing the ball right into the hands of senior safety Justin Solomon at the Cornell 46-yard line.
Noel’s fourth interception of the game gave the Red offense another chance.
Archer gave his secondary credit for its ability to create takeaways in big spots all season long.
“They just do a great job. They have great ball skills, they track the quarterback… They’re just doing a really nice job,” he said. “Coach [Jared] Backus and the defensive secondary are doing a great job taking the ball away.”
After the Solomon interception, Cornell drove the ball 51 yards on 13 plays to get within seven points. The Red converted two huge fourth downs and, on second-and-goal from the one, Banks ran it in on a QB sneak to put the Red right back into the game. With 8:54 left in the fourth, the Red trailed 31-24.
The Cornell defense stopped the Pioneers on its next possession, and with 4:18 left, the offense took over with a chance to tie the game up. After three plays failed to produce a third down, Archer chose to punt the ball away, with just 3:10 left in the fourth quarter, putting his faith in his defense — which had played nearly lights out all half — to get another big stop.
“I just thought our defense was playing really well,” he said of his play call. “We had one timeout left, and I thought we would stop them.”
And that is exactly what they did. Cornell got the ball back with 58 seconds and no timeouts in need of a touchdown.
After a Banks run and two incomplete passes, Cornell was awarded a first down due to a defensive holding penalty on Sacred Heart. Banks’ first-down throw went through the hands of Collin Shaw which set up second-and-10. With just nine seconds left in the game, Cornell needed 45 more yards.
Banks dropped back, evaded a defender and launched the ball downfield. The ball was tipped into the outstretched arms of Pioneer cornerback Tim Johnson, sealing the team’s fate and issuing Cornell its second straight loss.
The Red outscored Sacred Heart in the second half and got within one big play from tying the score, but it simply was not to be.
It was “really an emotional game,” Archer said. “I’m disappointed with the outcome… [but] the guys left it all out on the field. There were certainly a lot of good stats to point to — [I’m] just disappointed with the win-loss column.”
Banks shared the same sense of disappointment, despite the strong second half performance.
“I mean it shows we’re resilient… We’re always gonna fight back, but it was a bummer,” Banks said. “Things weren’t going our way and we got behind way too early. We got close and took a few shots in the end, but it just didn’t fall our way this week.”
The loss may sting, but Cornell will need to recover quickly in order to prepare for five straight Ivy League games to close out the season.
“We’ve gotta clean a lot of thing up and come back stronger for the Ivy run — I mean those are the ones that matter,” Banks said. “This one’s hard but we’ve got to get over it and focus on our league opponents.”