This post has been updated.
As soon as final whistle against Yale last year, Cornell football couldn’t wait to learn when the rematch would be. What the Red was handed was the Homecoming game in front of its largest crowd of the season for the Ivy opener against the defending champs. Sign head coach David Archer ’05 up for that perfect storm any day of the week.
With the chance to make a statement to the rest of the league in front of 11,400 students, faculty and alumni, Cornell kept it close in an emotional game but could not put together the key plays in key moments in what was ultimately a 30-24 victory for the Bulldogs.
“I’m with you,” a visibly distraught Archer responded with a deep sigh when asked if this was the perfect opportunity to send a message to the league. “That’s how it felt.”
What exactly could that statement have been? “I am tired of us getting ranked in the bottom half of the league every single preseason poll,” junior running back Harold Coles said.
“I thought we had these guys,” Archer added. “I didn’t think we were going to lose, so it’s more of a feeling of disappointment than anything else. Not just disappointed for me, but for our kids. To get a win on Homecoming is a great thing and to come up short on that really stings.”
While still a loss, Cornell felt it played a flip-flop of a game from last year’s 49-24 thrashing at the hands of Yale. Until Yale began to pull away at the end of the third quarter, Cornell had an answer for nearly every punch Yale threw.
Down by two with 12 minutes to play in the game, Cornell needed just one more punch. A roughing the passer call on a play that would have stunted a Yale drive ended that hope. The Bulldogs took the gift and cashed in for a game-winning touchdown three plays later.
“It was like a heavyweight fight,” Archer said. “There are going to be a couple of key punches that are landed, and you just don’t want to punch yourself, whether it’s penalties offensively or defensively.”
What makes it sting more is that Cornell felt it did what it needed to do for the win. The Red’s defense limited reigning Ivy League Rookie of the Year in Zane Dudek to just 33 yards, despite surrendering a pair of short first-quarter rushing touchdowns. But Dudek only got the ball four times in the second half and may not have been 100 percent healthy, Archer observed.
But the running back Cornell didn’t account for was freshman Spencer Alston, who came out of nowhere to total 141 yards on the day with a gut-punching touchdown in the waning minutes of the game.
“Take away Dudek and you’re probably going to win the football game, and we didn’t [win],” Archer said. “It kind of drives me even more crazy.”
“We just wanted to hit him,” Nolan said of Dudek, who rushed for 173 yards against Cornell last year. “We weren’t ready for him last year. He came out of nowhere last year and this year we were ready for him.”
Cornell countered with a speedy back of its own early in the game. Coles was one of a few Cornell offensive spark plugs on the day, amassing 130 yards, 98 of which came on his two long first-quarter touchdowns — a 40-yard run and a 58-yard catch and run.
But the rest of the Cornell offense continued to lag, aside from a 24-yard rushing touchdown from junior quarterback Mike Catanese in the fourth quarter that briefly cut the deficit to two before the dagger from Alston.
Compared to Yale quarterback Kurt Rawlings’ 283 passing yards, Cornell had just 164 yards in the air of its own, 58 of which came on Coles’ second touchdown.
It was a deviation from last week’s gameplan against Delaware in which three quarterbacks — Catanese, senior Dalton Banks and sophomore Richie Kenney — all saw action. Saturday was just Banks, who was 16-for-23 with 152 passing yards in the starter role, and Catanese, who attempted only one pass but had five rushes for 50 yards and a touchdown.
Other than two quick Yale touchdown drives in the first quarter, the Cornell defense did what it needed to do to keep the offense within striking distance for the second consecutive week. But Nolan and the defense behind him were not satisfied with one key statistic: Yale was a perfect six-for-six in the red zone on three touchdowns and three field goals.
“There’s a lot of stuff where we weren’t aligned right,” Nolan said. “I know everyone says this after they lose, but in the first quarter when they scored on those first two drives we weren’t aligned right on a bunch of pays. There’s definitely a lot of good but we just couldn’t finish the game.”
While the progress would be better supported by wins, Cornell feels that it has been able to showcase the improvements from last year to this. In losses to both Delaware and Yale in the first two games last year, the average margin of defeat was 26 points. This year, that number has shrunk to 10.
“I’m taking the growth approach, but it’s disappointing when you know you can win,” Archer said. “I know this team can [win], and we’re a better football team that we were last year.”
“If the ball bounces the other way on a play it could be the difference of a game,” Coles said. “I feel like if we just execute a few more plays, we’re there and we’re not talking about a loss right now.”