This post has been updated.
PHILADELPHIA — The men of Cornell football thought they had the chance to secure their first winning record in the Ivy League since 2005 on Saturday against Penn.
Justin Watson had other ideas.
The Penn star receiver shredded Cornell for 192 receiving yards, including a diving 34-yard reception that set up the Quakers’ game-winning score late in the fourth quarter. The senior helped Penn edge Cornell, 29-22, in the season finale for both teams.
Cornell — picked to finish last in the preseason media poll — finishes the 2017 season 3-7, including a 3-4 record in the Ivy League to tie with Harvard for fifth.
“What a spectacular effort out of their all-everything Justin Watson,” said head coach David Archer ’05. “Especially down the stretch he might have touched the ball every play. I don’t know very many people in our league or in the FCS that can make some of the catches that he made.”
Watson showed the league’s No. 1 pass defense why he is the best offensive player in the Ancient Eight; on his Senior Day, he hauled in 13 passes for 192 yards and a touchdown. With a dizzying array of screen passes, crisp routes and long receptions downfield, Watson, who is likely NFL-bound, dominated the game, and Cornell had no answer for him on defense.
Following Watson’s fourth-quarter catch and the ensuing touchdown run, Cornell faced a seven-point deficit with two minutes to go. After some tidy offensive work capped off by a 28-yard reception by senior wide receiver Collin Shaw, the Red worked its way all the way down the field to the Penn 1-yard line.
With 18 seconds left, sophomore running back Harold Coles was stymied at the line. The clock continued to run, and it appeared as though junior quarterback Dalton Banks’ spike was just milliseconds too late; the game clock hit zero and Penn fans screamed in elation.
But the referees conferred and awarded Cornell with one more second; one more chance to win; one more opportunity to earn the Red’s first winning record in the Ivy League since 2005.
But Banks’ pass was knocked down at the goal line, ending the Red’s season in heartbreaking fashion.
“What a football game. What a football game,” Archer said. “My senior class and my team showed a lot of character to come down here and play this type of football game against a really good team.”
The teams traded leads early in the first half with neither pulling away. With two first-half interceptions — as well as a third in the fourth quarter — sophomore cornerback David Jones was critical to keeping Cornell competitive in the opening two quarters. His first pick set up Cornell’s first score of the game, a 32-yard field goal from Nickolas Null that gave the Red the lead. Later in the half, with Penn’s offense in the red zone, Jones’ second pick derailed the Quakers’ scoring attempt to preserve Cornell’s 10-7 lead.
“They were driving to score and he comes up with a pick, what a great effort,” Archer said of the sophomore, who is also the team’s primary kick-returner. “He’s really emerged as a playmaker in the kick game and certainly the defensive secondary.”
Eventually, the Quakers built themselves a 21-10 lead into halftime. They looked to add a fourth touchdown early in the second half when the squad marched to the Red’s 13-yard line, but once again a member of Cornell’s secondary came up huge when it mattered. Senior captain and safety Nick Gesualdi tipped the ball up to himself and came down with it as he fell out of bounds. The interception was the 14th of Gesualdi’s decorated Cornell career, leaving him one shy of tying the all-time program record.
Cornell then marched 92 yards down the field for a touchdown, culminating with senior Mac Pope’s first career score in his final career game. After the Red’s two-point conversion came up empty, Cornell trailed Penn by five with 4:37 left in the third quarter.
On the Red’s next offensive drive, Coles’ 44-yard tackle-breaking run brought the Red to the Quakers’ six-yard line. Four plays later, a Banks quarterback sneak gave Cornell a narrow one-point advantage with 14 minutes to play in the game.
Jones made it a hat trick of picks on the drive following the touchdown, snagging a pass deep in Cornell territory to keep the Quakers out of the end zone.
But after the Red punted it away, Watson and the Penn offense went to work, going 97 yards in 13 plays for the go-ahead score. Cornell’s potential game-tying drive, and bid for a winning Ivy record, fell just short.
Despite the result, the team remains steadfast in its assertion that Cornell football has made strides in the past few years, and that much more is yet to come.
“The biggest thing we’ve always talked about is changing the culture, the culture of a losing team,” said Gesualdi, one of 25 seniors to have experienced two straight 1-9 campaigns to open their careers. “We’ve finally got that out of here. This year is the first year in which we finally pushed it all aside.”
To many of the seniors, that culture change is one of their proudest accomplishments on the team.
Said Shaw, whose five-year Cornell career came to an end Saturday: “The class that I was in that graduated last year and the class this year have really stepped up and have been like, ‘Buy in and we’re going to freaking win a championship.’ Obviously we fell short of our goal but we completely flipped the culture of this program and we’re actually competing in every game.”
Archer — who has said he has a special connection to this year’s senior class, his first recruits as a head coach — added that while it was difficult to send out the seniors on a sour note, he is confident they have been instrumental to the program’s improvement.
“From when they came here we were not competitive in football games to being competitive in every game they play and competing for a title and being relevant for a title in week nine,” he said. “I’m really proud of these seniors who have left this place better than they found it. … Night and day.”