This post has been updated.
Cornell football suffered a special teams collapse in a heartbreaking road loss to Columbia in its season finale on Saturday.
Two missed field goals, a punt returned for a touchdown and — worst of all — a squib kick returned for a game-winning touchdown in the final minute of play gave the Lions a 24-21 win to end the Red’s forgettable season at 3-7 and just 2-5 in Ivy League play.
“It’s a heartbreaking, shocking way to finish,” said head coach David Archer ’05. “Our kids are just so strong and so resilient to battle back and win that game and then the unimaginable happened; the unthinkable happened. I’m still kind of in shock and heartbroken from it. That’s really the only way I can describe it.”
Cornell appeared to have clinched a come-from-behind victory with less than a minute left. Senior quarterback Dalton Banks capped off a strong Cornell drive with a two-yard quarterback sneak for the score and a 21-17 lead.
The Red elected to try a squib kick on the ensuing kickoff as to avoid Columbia kick returner Mike Roussos, who had already returned a punt 91 yards for a touchdown. Instead, Roussos scooped up the loose ball, followed his blocks and took it 87 yards to the end zone. Cornell’s lead had vanished, and the offense couldn’t find a miracle of its own with 47 seconds left.
“To prevent [a return], especially when your opponent needs a touchdown to win, a great strategy is to squib kick it to try to throw off their blocking schemes and their return, not give their return man good vision,” Archer said of the strategy, citing an analytics group that said 2 percent of kickoff returns on squibs in 2017 went for touchdowns. “So that’s what we did, squibbed it … the way they were aligned [Roussos] had a crease, he had a seam. There were a couple of blocks that were questionable, but they didn’t get called at the end of the day. The chances of that happening were incredibly small and somehow it happened.”
Early nominee for Ivy League Special Teams POTW Mike Roussos with a go-ahead Touchdown return! pic.twitter.com/JL4qmEF7od
— Columbia Football (@ColumbiaLionsFB) November 17, 2018
Cornell’s season ends at 3-7 overall and 2-5 in league play to finish the year in seventh place in the Ancient Eight.
“I’m so proud of our kids, especially our seniors. They don’t deserve to go out like that. In pretty much every aspect of the game [we] outplayed Columbia,” Archer said of his team, which out-gained the Lions, 460-235.
A turnover and ugly special teams play put Cornell in a quick 10-0 hole in its season finale. On the Red’s first drive of the game, Banks’ 11th interception of the season gave Columbia good field position, and the defense held to force Columbia to settle for a field goal and 3-0 lead.
On Cornell’s next drive, the Red’s punt coverage went awry and Roussos returned freshman Koby Kiefer’s punt 91 yards for a touchdown.
Two missed field goals early on by senior kicker Zach Mays kept the Red off the board despite some decent offensive movement — a 48-yarder was blocked and a 22-yard chip shot went wide left. Cornell’s first four offensive series went interception, punt returned for touchdown, missed field goal, missed field goal.
Junior defensive lineman Jordan Landsman’s first career interception on a ball he tipped to himself at the line set up the Red to march into the red zone before Mays missed his second kick of the half.
Trailing by 10, Cornell finally got on the board on its penultimate drive of the first half to enter the break down by just three. The Red’s first score of the day was the first of two touchdowns for junior running back Harold Coles. Banks had two 20-plus-yard completions on the drive — one to Coles and one to sophomore receiver Eric Gallman. Coles capped off the drive with a 7-yard score.
Neither offense could get anything done in the third quarter — the back-and-forth 15 minutes that looked a bit like the 2015 contest, a 3-0 Cornell victory.
Late in the third, looking to make something work offensively, the teams traded failed fourth down attempts near midfield. Cornell was stopped short on 4th and 4; then the Red stopped the Lions on 4th and 1 before punting it away on 4th and long on the ensuing drive.
Junior linebacker Mo Bradford’s first career interception, also a ball he tipped to himself, near midfield early in the fourth quarter, gave Cornell the ball back with a chance to tie or take a lead. In need of a big play to break the back-and-forth, Coles delivered. The tailback’s 31-yard touchdown sprint, his team-leading 10th of the season, gave Cornell a 14-10 lead.
Coles ended his up-and-down junior season strong, tallying 209 yards on the day — 123 on the ground, 86 in the air — alongside his pair of touchdowns.
On the following drive, a big gain through the air for Columbia on 3rd and 13 from quarterback Ty Lenhart to receiver Ronald Smith set the Lions up in the red zone. Two plays later, wildcat quarterback Kyle Castner put Columbia back on top, 17-14, with a one-yard touchdown run.
Senior wide receiver Lars Pedersen has seemed to make one highlight reel catch per game recently, and Saturday was no exception. With less than six minutes left, Pedersen hauled in a deep throw from Banks to move the chains on 3rd and 10, moving Cornell, trailing by three, into Lion territory. The drive then stalled — on 4th and 9 from the Columbia 35, Banks was stopped short on a QB run and the hosts took over with 4:16 to play.
After the Red’s defensive stop, the offense took over and engineered a go-ahead drive. Then, an epic special teams collapse sent Cornell to a seventh-place Ivy League finish.
“There’s not much to say,” Archer said of his postgame message to the team. “To lean on each other, how heartbreaking that is … It wasn’t a time to talk about anything other than that. But I’m so proud of those kids.”