This post has been updated.
Cornell football had a chance to right the ship as Brown — tied with the Red at the bottom of the Ivy League — came to town for a conference tilt.
Against a struggling Bear defense, the Red tallied a new season-high in points as it narrowly edged out Brown in a thrilling contest, 37-35, and avoided a painful loss to the Ivy League’s cellar-dweller.
Coming into the game, Cornell’s (2-4, 1-2 Ivy League) struggles on offense were well-documented. Not only have injuries hampered growth, but errors in the red zone have prevented the Red from reaching its full potential. Cornell’s defense — vaunted as a top unit in the country — struggled to stop an explosive attack led by Brown (1-5, 0-3) quarterback E.J. Perry.
The Red’s recurring errors nearly sank the team, but Cornell did just enough to secure a much-needed victory as senior kicker Nickolas Null converted a game-winning 41-yard field goal to lift Cornell to its first Ivy League victory.
Down by one, the Red only had 36 seconds to get into field goal range. Junior quarterback Richie Kenney — who passed for a career-high 332 yards — completed several big passes to junior wide receiver Eric Gallman, senior tight end John Fitzgerald and senior wide receiver Owen Peters.
“They were yelling at me to run out onto the field, so I ran a little fast and kind of sped up my tempo,” Null said. “That’s probably why I didn’t hit it straight, right down the pipe.”
Still, the kick went through the uprights and gave Cornell hope heading into a tough Ivy slate.
“We needed this win like we need oxygen,” said head coach David Archer ’05. “Coming off a few heartbreaking losses, to win this game in dramatic, thrilling fashion is huge.”
What occurred before the comeback was an offensive bonanza.
Led by Kenney and junior running back SK Howard — who was filling in for injured senior running back Harold Coles — Cornell looked good early. In fact, on the first play from scrimmage, Kenney hit junior wide receiver Alex Kuzy for a 38-yard catch-and-run. The drive later ended with a 38-yard field goal from Null.
Brown was not deterred, though. Throughout the first half, the Bears moved the ball with relative ease. On its first drive, Brown crossed midfield, but Perry was picked off by senior safety Jelani Taylor. The interception was the Beecher, Michigan, native’s second career pick and came a week after he returned a fumble 87 yards for a touchdown against Colgate.
“He might be the most complete football player I have ever coached,” said Archer, heaping praise on his captain.
Following a three-and-out by the Red, Perry sliced and diced the Red defense. Eventually, the Boston College transfer capped off the drive with a 29-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Scott Boylan to give Brown an early 6-3 lead following a failed two-point conversion, which Taylor disrupted.
Cornell’s next drive mirrored its first. This time, Peters ripped through the Brown defense for a 63-yard reception. But once again, the Red failed to reach the end zone. A 15-yard hands-to-the-face penalty by junior wide receiver Eric Gallman set the offense back, and Kenney failed to make up the ground on ensuing plays. The Red settled for another Null field goal to knot the contest at six apiece.
At the beginning of the second frame, the Bears turned the ball over on downs, and the Red capitalized, as Kenney found Fitzgerald for two crucial third down conversions. As Cornell neared the goal line, Kenney connected with Fitzgerald for a 12-yard score — the senior’s first career touchdown.
Brown crossed midfield on its next drive but committed a grave error. After an incomplete pass on third down, the Bears elected to punt. But on the play, Perry — who handles his team’s punting duties in addition to being the starting signal-caller — punted into the back of his offensive lineman. Sophomore cornerback Eric Stoxstill-Diggs recovered the ball and returned it 46 yards for a touchdown.
“All I heard was [senior linebacker] Justin Bedard screaming, ‘You better not fall!’” said Stoxstill Diggs. “It was a crazy sequence.”
But the Red’s comfortable lead was reduced following an impressive drive by Perry and co. Backed up inside their own five-yard line, Perry engineered a 98-yard drive that culminated with a score to make it 20-12.
The third quarter featured two scores from each side as both offenses continued their rhythm. Perry kicked off the scoring by accounting for 74 of his team’s 75 yards on the initial touchdown drive. The next time Perry and co. got the ball, they made quick work of the Red defense, traversing 75 yards in three minutes to keep pace with Cornell.
“He’s a good player,” Archer said of Perry. “A very good player.”
Even against Brown’s high-powered offense, the Red set the tone. Cornell’s first drive of the third saw Kenney and Howard — two former high school rivals — team up to batter the Bears’ weak defense en route to a touchdown. The same was true on the second touchdown drive, but this time, Howard did most of the heavy lifting as he ripped off a 40-yard touchdown, crossing the 100-yard mark for the first time in his career.
“It was an opportunity that you have to capitalize on,” said Howard, referencing his increased workload. “Not just for myself, but for the team as well.”
Entering the final frame, Cornell held a nine-point lead, but Brown eventually gained an edge.
Midway through the fourth quarter, Perry completed a nine-yard touchdown pass to Demitri Jackson to narrow the deficit to two points, ending a drive that ate up six minutes of clock. On the Red’s ensuing possession, it went three-and-out and punted.
Brown also punted after encountering a 4th-and-long scenario, but senior cornerback David Jones fumbled the punt, giving the Bears possession at the Cornell 20-yard line, where they kicked a field goal to take the lead.
Cornell staged a pair of comeback attempts, the first of which failed. The Red could not pick up a first down, as two Kenney incompletions appeared to warrant penalties, neither of which the referees granted.
After the turnover on downs, Brown proceeded to milk the clock. On fourth down with under a minute to go, the Bears opted not to kick a field goal and instead try to kill more game time with another run. Fortunately for the Red, senior safety Jake Watkins sacked Perry for a 16-yard loss, giving Cornell favorable field position to set up Kenney and Null’s late-game heroics.
In the end, Cornell and Brown combined for an astounding 991 yards of total offense. The Red has continued to take positive steps each week on offense, taking advantage of Brown’s weak defense on Saturday.
“A lot of the receivers have had bigger games in the past weeks,” Kenney said. “It’s just everything coming together — SK Howard stepping up when Harold was down this week having a phenomenal game … It’s just everyone stepping up — that next-man mentality — and rising to the occasion.”
Meanwhile, the defense was exposed by Perry — who totalled 463 yards and three touchdowns — but it came up with big plays to keep the Red alive.
“The defense kind of bailed us out in the beginning of the year,” Kenney said. “We were their little brother, but we realized that we had to step up for this to be a complete team.”
Now, instead of riding a five-game losing streak heading into a Friday night matchup with Princeton, Cornell will carry with it an Ivy win on its resume and some renewed confidence.
“A loss like this would have been crushing,” Stoxstill-Diggs said. “But a win here is a big relief, showing that all of our hard work is worth it.”
Cornell will look to build off the win when it faces the Tigers on Friday night at Schoellkopf Field.