PHILADELPHIA — The last play in Cornell football’s 29-22 loss to Penn in the season finale — a one-yard, potential game-tying pass attempt broken up as the game clock expired — is about as heartbreaking as any storyline out there.
But with the disappointment of the final buzzer also comes a renewed sense of optimism heading into the offseason.
“This is the springboard in terms of momentum and competitiveness and playmaking that I was looking for out of my team,” said head coach David Archer ’05 of Cornell’s performance in Philadelphia Saturday. “It hurts not to get the win, but there is certainly a springboard with this going forward.”
Just two short years ago, Cornell won a single game in its 2015 campaign thanks to a 3-0 coin flip victory over Columbia. This year? The Red competed for an Ivy title as late as week nine and came up just short of its first winning Ivy record in 12 years.
The latter might not be the most prestigious of accomplishments, but ask any single member of the team — coach, graduating senior, incoming freshman, returning starter — and they’ll tell you the best is yet to come.
“We’re excited. A lot of us are already talking in the locker room and we know we’re going to be back. We know we’re capable of competing,” sophomore cornerback David Jones said after the loss to Penn. “But we’re just going to learn from today and learn from this year what we need to clean up next year in order to achieve our goal of an Ivy League championship.”
“It leaves a chip on our shoulder for sure,” added sophomore running back Harold Coles. “It hurts to lose, but we have potential and we have a lot of young dudes stepping up so we get one more year of experience under our belts we could be a scary team.”
Losing All-American Nick Gesualdi, second in program history with 14 career interceptions, will be a big blow. So will be losing linebacker and captain Kurt Frimel, the heart and soul of the defense. Also James Hubbard. And Jack Gellatly. And Justin Solomon. And so on.
But to see a potential emerging star in Jones, who grabbed three interceptions against Penn to become the sixth Cornellian to accomplish the feat in a single game, was a welcome sight. As is the breakout season for Coles. As is the fact that almost the entirety of the offensive line will return after coming together as a solid unit as the season progressed. And so on.
“The best part is that they are upset when we didn’t win,” Archer said. “If you [followed] us that year we beat Columbia 3-0 for our only victory, it was like the Super Bowl. It’s so different now. We know we are good and we are coming after the Ivy League in 2018.”
Jones, specifically, mirrors some of what Gesualdi brought to the table. While three of his four interceptions in 2017 came in the season finale, Jones led the team in picks this season on top of serving as the team’s primary kick returner. Gesualdi was the primary man on punts.
“He’s going to be a real player in this league if he already isn’t,” Archer said of Jones.
Coles, on the other hand, was asked to step up after junior running back Chris Walker, a reigning All-Ivy first-team selection, saw his season end in the Princeton win. Coles finished the year with 574 total yards on 80 rush attempts and nine receptions. Walker’s 2017 season ended with an identical amount of rushes and more receptions but 79 fewer yards to show for it.
“Coles and [freshman S.K. Howard] were running downhill and running over people,” fifth-year senior Collin Shaw said of the young tailbacks. “They’re the reason we were able to be so close against Penn.”
Players like Gesualdi and Shaw, both emotional after playing in their final games, will now be forced to watch the seeds they sowed for years blossom as outsiders. But those two, along with their head coach and anyone around the program, will tell you this bluntly: Cornell is a losing program no longer.
“This year is the last year in which we finally pushed [the losing culture] all aside and next year should be a good year,” Gesualdi said. “Definitely a change in the culture just one of those things that [is] a necessity for a winning program, and that’s what we’ve focused on our four years here.”