For an extensive play-by-play with highlights, see our live blog here.
NEW YORK — Chris Fraser does one thing exceptionally well for Cornell football: he punts.
After Saturday’s thrilling 42-40 win over Columbia, he can add game-changing receptions to his repertoire.
The three-time All-American punter caught a 33-yard pass in the third quarter of Saturday’s game that shifted momentum to Cornell, allowing the Red to knock off the Lions for the fourth straight year.
Trailing by three points early in the second half, Cornell’s offensive drive stalled, and it looked like the Red was going to have to give the ball back to Columbia’s offense.
That was when special teams coordinator Guido Falbo suggested to head coach David Archer ’05 that the Red try a fake punt. The Red had practiced the play throughout the season — one that originally required backup quarterback Jake Jatis to throw across the middle. Yet time and time again in practice, Fraser, the play’s second option, was open down the sideline and made the catch.
Saturday was no different.
“I’m literally thinking to myself ‘I’m going to catch this ball,’” Fraser said. “Jake trusted me, he threw it to me and we made a big play and that really helped change the momentum of the game.”
The punter easily made the catch, and, on the very next play, sophomore quarterback Dalton Banks connected with junior tight end Hayes Nolte in the endzone to put the Red in the lead for good. Cornell would add two more scores to keep the Lions at bay and win the Empire State Bowl for the fourth straight year.
“You probably won’t hear the end of it in practice this week,” joked sophomore running back Chris Walker aboutf the play.
A year ago, a field goal was enough for Cornell football to come away with its first, and only, victory of the season. In that game, a 3-0 win at home, the Red and the Lions played sloppy offense, with neither team assembling a semblance of a strong drive.
In New York City on Saturday, it would take a lot more than three points for the Red to come out on top to end its five-game losing streak.
Hungry for its first win since Oct. 1, the Red pounced on the Lions, picking off Columbia quarterback Anders Hill on the first play of the game. A few plays later, Walker broke past the line of scrimmage on fourth down and scampered 27 yards into the endzone for his first career score.
“It just felt fake,” Walker said of finding the endzone for the first time. “It was just so wide open. It was fake. I came to the sideline and said, ‘Was that real?’”
If there was any doubt whether the score was real, it disappeared when Walker went on to perform twice more, scoring on 28- and 71-yard runs which looked almost identical to his first touchdown. He ended with 178 yards on the ground.
All season, Walker has been close to breaking out a big run. On Saturday, he finally executed.
“It’s just learning,” Walker said about what he was able to do differently this time around. “When you get back in the open, make sure to get your feet up. I’ve gotten tripped way too many times.”
Walker and Archer both made sure to point out the effort from the offensive line, a group that made Walker’s career day possible.
Columbia answered right back with a pair of scores, dropping the Red into a 14-7 deficit in the first quarter.
With the ball back, Cornell shot down the field, determined to tie up the game. Senior wide receiver Ben Rogers hauled in a perfectly thrown ball from Banks for the touchdown.
Banks, after a series of games in which he struggled, looked calm in the pocket, alternating long downfield passes with short, efficient throws. He ended with 267 yards on 23-of-37 passing.
“He’s such a mature kid for a sophomore you forget that he’s just a sophomore,” Archer said. “I probably put too much on his plate in the middle of the year we just tried to scale it back.”
One of Banks’ few imperfections on the day was a pass that was tipped at the line of scrimmage and intercepted by a Columbia linebacker. The Lions would go on to turn the turnover into points, taking a 21-14 lead.
The Red tied it back up when Walker ran for his second touchdown of the game, but a field goal from Columbia gave the Lions the halftime lead.
“[Trailing an opponent] doesn’t scare us,” said junior safety Nick Gesualdi. “We’re used to playing down, we know that there is always a chance we’re going to win and we’re never going to stop fighting. We fight to the end just like you saw today.”
Later in the game, Nolte’s touchdown catch was sandwiched by two Columbia field goals, and Cornell led by the narrowest of margins entering the fourth. A long, time-killing drive by Cornell culminated in a one-yard run from Banks, putting the Red up eight with under 10 minutes to go.
In the past, the Red had seen similar leads dissolve as opponents orchestrate comebacks and send Cornell to stinging defeats.
But strong play from all sides of the ball ensured that would not happen.
“We had to take away all the little mistakes and no big plays,” Gesualdi said. “We thought we were the better team. We thought we had a better matchup if we keep doing what we practice all week. If we stayed technically sound, that we were going to win it.”
Yet, despite the confidence from Cornell, Columbia fired back, marching down the field for a 13-yard touchdown pass. The Lions’ two-point conversion attempt came up empty when Gesualdi locked down Columbia’s ball carrier.
Cornell’s lead stood precariously at two with 6:26 left in the game. But that was when Walker tacked on one more run, this one the most important of his career. The 71-yard touchdown made the game a two-possession contest with under five minutes to play.
An acrobatic Gesualdi interception on the ensuing drive effectively iced the game. And when Columbia’s onsides kick came up empty, the Red officially snapped its losing streak.
In the locker room after the game, the players chanted, “Empire Bowl!” and passed the trophy as the men celebrated the win.
“We’ve had so many highs and lows this season,” Archer said. “Recently a bunch of lows, and to see them respond, and play like this, as banged up as they are, to come away with a victory was just a great thing to watch. I’m just really, really proud of them.”
The team had pent-up frustration after a series of recent losses, many of which were close to falling in the Red’s favor, according to Archer.
“When you get close and you don’t come away with a victory, it’s really frustrating,” Archer said, “but to see guys just keep coming back and coming back and making plays, it was really cool.”
Fraser and the rest of the senior class are inching towards the end of their careers with Cornell. A victory on Saturday was important for the team to get back on the right track as the season’s end approaches.
“There was a lot of frustration but we pulled it off at the end and it’s an amazing feeling,” Fraser said. “We came in here determined to win. … We knew [Columbia] was going to come in and play really hard on their senior day. At the end of the day we made a lot of big plays and pulled it out.”