This post has been updated.
Two kicks, separated by one yard and 37 seconds, are what defined the biggest win for Cornell football in recent history, eradicating the demons from a 56-7 loss to Princeton at home last year.
“I can’t watch this,” junior quarterback Dalton Banks told himself as Princeton’s Tavish Rice lined up for a 44-yard kick, just half a minute after Cornell’s Nickolas Null sunk a 43-yarder to give his team the lead.
But after two timeouts to ice the Princeton kicker, Banks picked his head up to see Rice’s kick shank to the left, securing another victim in the team’s coined “Revenge Tour.”
“This is gonna sound crazy, but I just knew it was going to happen,” said head coach David Archer ’05. “I just knew we were going to win.”
The Nickolas Null FG is good. Cornell takes a 29-28 lead with 0:48 left. pic.twitter.com/W5ep35inbD
— Cornell Big Red (@CornellSports) October 29, 2017
With the Princeton Stadium floodlights shining and the NBC cameras rolling, Cornell did what many thought was impossible; the team upset Princeton, 29-28, thanks to a last minute field goal from Null, the sophomore punter and backup kicker, making 56-7 last year a distant memory.
“It was unreal,” Banks said. “He made a great kick. … That was an all-around great team win.”
Null, the starting punter who has filled in at kicker after junior Zach Mays went down with an injury against Brown, was 3-3 on field goals on the night and 2-2 on extra points.
“The guy’s got ice in his veins, and he’s just such a class kid,” Archer told NBC Sports after the game. “He kicks the winning field goal and then he comes over to me and he says, ‘Hey thanks for recruiting me.’”
Cornell, picked to finish last in the Ivy preseason polls, now sits tied for first place in the Ancient Eight with wins over the two preseason favorites — Princeton and Harvard — already on its resume.
“It’s just validating a belief that I had … and that my staff had,” Archer said. “You start to see the manifestation of that belief.”
Princeton, the top scoring offense in the Ivy league, flexed its muscles in the first half and took a 21-10 lead into halftime, reminiscent of last year’s demolishing of the Red.
Tiger quarterback Chad Kanoff had no trouble finding open receivers and led his team to nearly 300 yards of offense in the first two quarters. But the Red’s defense, ranked No. 1 in total defensive yards, buckled down and limited the Tigers to just one touchdown in the final 30 minutes.
“[Our coaching staff] made some great adjustments at halftime,” Archer said. “They did a few different things because Princeton reacted to our initial gameplan and they changed it up and the kids executed it.”
“Once the jitters calmed down, and our defensive coordinator made a bunch of great corrections, we went out there and did what we needed to do,” said senior safety Nick Gesualdi, who snagged an interception to set up Cornell’s first score of the day.
As has been the gameplan for much of the season, the Red stayed true to the run and moved the ball effectively throughout the game, finishing the night with 163 yards on the ground with contributions coming across the board. Despite limited success early, Archer’s continued commitment to the ground game paid off and helped the Red keep Princeton’s offense off the field. Cornell won the time of possession battle, finishing with just under 33 minutes on offense compared to the Tigers’ 27.
“We knew we had to go out there and execute,” said Banks, who played behind an offensive line that did not give up a sack. “We knew we were in the game the whole time, even when they jumped out early. We didn’t let that get us down and just stayed confident that we were going to get the win.”
A rotation between Banks and senior Jake Jatis under center got the job done as well. Banks threw two interceptions — including one early in the third quarter — and it seemed Jatis had taken over for the night. The Princeton defense had no answers for Jatis’ dual-threat ability, as the senior converted on seemingly countless short yardage situations to keep the chains moving.
But it was Banks’ turn to lead the team down the field on its final drive with under five minutes remaining, and he made sure his head coach did not regret his decision. Banks completed all six of his passes on that series and brought his team into field goal range.
Banks finished the game 23 of 29 passing for 171 yards, while Jatis led the rushing attack with 61 yards on 12 carries, including a touchdown.
After no gain on third down from the Princeton 26, Archer sent out Null to attempt the 43-yarder. His kick looked like it would have gone ten more yards if it needed to, and the Red had its first lead of the night.
“It was a great feeling,” Banks said of leading his team on the game-winning drive. “Whatever it takes to get the ‘W.’ We had trouble running the ball when I was in, and we did a great job when [Jatis] was in. We both did our parts, and that’s what you need to do to win.”
Princeton got the ball back with 48 seconds to go, but kicker Tavish Rice could not create the same magic as Null, shanking a 44-yarder that would have given Princeton the last second victory.
A bit of bad news amid the pure bliss of a win of such magnitude on national television, junior running back Chris Walker went down with a non-contact right leg injury and had to be helped off the field. His status going forward is uncertain.
Here’s another look at the play that brought down Chris Walker, who had to be helped off the field with a right leg injury. pic.twitter.com/4N01rldcqS
— Cornell Sun Sports (@DailySunSports) October 29, 2017
“You hate to see one of your brothers go down tonight, but we had to stay focused and say we are going to do this for him,” Banks said. “No better opportunity to go out there and do it for our brother.”
Cornell moves to 3-1 in the Ivy League, tied for first place alongside Yale and Columbia. The Red has three games remaining and will look to continue its “Revenge Tour” at Dartmouth next Saturday.
“We’ve known that we’ve had it this whole time, but we’re finally letting everybody else know that Cornell’s here,” Gesualdi said. “We know we’re not messing around, we’re ready to keep going.”