This post has been updated.
Pitted against a struggling Penn team, it seemed like Cornell football’s tilt against the Quakers on Saturday marked the perfect opportunity to not only gain some ground in the Ivy League but also pick up its first Trustees’ Cup since 2013.
The Red came up short as a two-point conversion attempt in the final minute failed, resulting in a 21-20 loss to Penn.
With time winding down and Cornell down, 21-14, junior quarterback Richie Kenney engineered a long drive from his own six-yard line. Over the course of 16 plays and seven and a half minutes, Kenney and co. eventually found the end zone after junior wide receiver Phazione McClurge hauled in his second touchdown catch of the day.
Head coach David Archer ’05 decided to go for the win as he opted for a two-point conversion. After the timeout, though, Kenney’s screen pass fell incomplete.
“I thought we had a really good rhythm going offensively — it was a 94-yard drive,” Archer said of his decision to go for two. “Being the visitor at their homecoming, I thought, ‘I like our odds of getting three yards.’”
“The officials are supposed to ask you where you want the spot on every point-after,” Archer said. “They just didn’t — it was a play we wanted to run from the right hash. We were screaming, ‘Right hash! Right Hash!’ They said, ‘Well, once the play clock gets under 25 seconds, we can’t reset it.’”
“That was really unfortunate — that was a break of some rhythm there,” Archer continued. “It wasn’t that we were indecisive about the play or [whether] to do it. Unfortunate.”
While Cornell recovered the ensuing onside kick attempt, the Red was flagged for offside, thus forcing a rekick. Junior kicker Garrett Patla’s next kick was batted out of bounds, ending the team’s hopes of eking out a win.
Cornell missed several opportunities to score early. On its first drive, the Red entered Quaker territory and stalled outside of the red zone. Senior kicker Nickolas Null came on for a 45-yard field goal attempt; however, the kick fell short, Null’s first miss of the season.
Penn, too, encountered similar struggles on offense. On its first drive, the Quakers also crossed midfield, but two botched handoffs by quarterback Nick Robinson resulted in big losses as freshman linebacker Jake Stebbins and senior linebacker Malik Leary converged to push Penn back.
Later, the Quakers picked off Kenney to set up favorable field position, but they squandered a prime opportunity as the Cornell defense stood tall to force a three-and-out.
Throughout the first frame, Cornell was consistently stuck in poor field position, and that eventually caught up to the Red. Late in the first, Null was forced to punt from deep in his own end zone, setting Penn up in Cornell territory.
As the second quarter started, the Quakers drove down inside the red zone, but Cornell forced a third-and-long situation. Robinson responded with a 12-yard touchdown pass to Rory Starkey to give Penn the early lead.
Starting its next drive from the 15, Cornell was buoyed by big gains from senior running back Harold Coles and McClurge as it marched all the way down to the goal line.
But the Red could not punch the ball in. Sophomore quarterback Dez’mond Brinson attempted to break the plane through several QB sneaks, but he could not break the Penn defense. Cornell attempted to score on fourth down, but the Quakers stuffed Brinson.
While it appeared that the Red missed another chance to put points on the board, the decision paid off. Penn went nowhere on the ensuing drive, and Cornell took over on Penn’s side of the field.
Cornell appeared well on its way to stalling as Kenney was sacked, setting up a third-and-long. But this time, the Red converted. Kenney found McClurge at the Penn 30, and the junior broke several tackles in his run to the end zone, which knotted the game at seven apiece.
“He made that transition and committed himself to it, and it’s just gotten better each week,” Archer said of McClurge, who led the team in receiving with eight catches for 124 yards and two touchdowns. “Particularly on that first touchdown, it was good to see that short completion and see him take it for a score.”
While the score was tied going into the half, Cornell was clearly outplaying Penn. The Red outgained the Quakers, 191-84, in the first half. Penn’s offensive centerpiece — senior running back Karekin Brooks — was held to under two yards per carry.
“We had great respect for [Karekin Brooks] coming into the game — he was tops in the FCS in yards per gain,” Archer said. “If we stopped him … we thought we would have a pretty good shot.”
Though Brooks played better in the second half, he still finished with only 67 total yards and an average of three yards per rush.
Cornell’s defense shut down many of Penn’s key players — including star sophomore wide receiver Ryan Cragun, who only caught one ball for eight yards — but it ceded several big plays later in the half that ultimately made the difference.
Midway through the third, Cornell added another score. With Kenney spreading the ball out to his receivers and junior running back SK Howard notching a 21-yard gain, the Red found itself on the goal line again.
A similar script unfolded as Penn came up with several stops, forcing a 4th-and-goal from the one. This time, though, Cornell scored thanks to sophomore running back Delonte Harrell. Harrell corralled a pitch by Brinson with one hand and broke the plane to give Cornell the lead.
With Robinson struggling, Penn inserted junior quarterback Ryan Glover into the game in hopes of finding a spark. That change was exactly what the Quakers needed.
Glover spearheaded a four-play, 75-yard drive that culminated in a 40-yard touchdown catch by wide receiver Kolton Kuber to tie the game.
Penn kept its foot on the gas. Following a Cornell punt, Penn wasted no time in retaking the lead. On a well-crafted trick play, Glover threw laterally to Owen Goldsberry, who launched a deep pass to Eric Markes. Markes caught the ball and took it all the way into the end zone for an 80-yard score to give Penn a seven-point lead, which proved enough for the victory.
“I think we made some good plays — a really back-and-forth game between evenly matched teams,” Archer said. “We made some plays in the passing game and on defense, but in such a close game, it’s hard to think of the positives when you lose such a close one.”
The end-of-season slate does not get any easier as the Red will face Dartmouth on the road next weekend.