This post has been updated.
After a crushing loss to Penn two weeks ago, Cornell football was sitting at 2-6 with only a single conference victory. The Red was slotted at seventh in the Ivy League standings and appeared primed for another disappointing finish.
But a lot changed in two weeks. With emotions running high on Senior Day, the Red blew out Columbia, 35-9, to secure a fourth-place finish in the Ivy League and finish with a 3-4 record in conference play.
After Cornell’s incredible upset of then-No. 11 Dartmouth on the road along with losses by Harvard and Columbia, the Red had a chance to move up the standings — and it took advantage, earning its first top-four finish of David Archer’s ’05 tenure.
For the final week of the season, Columbia — coming off an embarrassing 48-24 loss to Brown — visited Ithaca for the Empire State Bowl.
The Red’s victory comes a year after it fell to Columbia off a last-minute kick return for a touchdown.
“I’m just so happy for the senior class — those kids have worked so hard through so many ups and downs,” Archer said. “They posted one of their best performances last in a dominant win over a team [that we suffered] a heartbreaking, crushing loss to last year.”
Playing for its seniors, Cornell (4-6, 3-4 Ivy League) came out with high energy. The Red forced three-and-outs on Columbia’s (3-7, 2-5) first three drives, providing no breathing room for the Lions.
“This week, our captain [senior] Jelani Taylor gave [the senior speech],” said senior running back Harold Coles. “Listening to that guy speak, you want to run through a wall for that man. He’s awesome, and I love him to death … he’s just one of the most natural leaders I’ve ever met. You can see that energy from the first play for sure.”
Meanwhile, Cornell found much more success on its first possessions. In fact, on the second play of the game, senior running back Harold Coles found an opening and burst through. The Erie, Pennsylvania, native rumbled all the way into paydirt for a 58-yard score to give the Red the early advantage. Coles became the eighth player to rush for 2,000 career yards in program history with the big run.
“You see those stats, but there’s just a lot of other things that go into it,” Coles said. “There’s a lot of great guys that block for me, a lot of great coaches that helped me get here. It’s more of a testament to everybody else than me because I’m so blessed to be here.”
“Did you wonder, on the second offensive snap, when [Coles] took it to the house whether it was our day or not,” Archer said. “He just set the tone from the start with that … When he broke that run, the offensive guys on the headsets were like, ‘Man, I’m going to miss that breakaway speed.”
Eventually, Columbia gained some steam. On third down, Lions quarterback Ty Lenhart found wide receiver Josh Wainwright for a 33-yard gain to move into Cornell territory. But Columbia squandered this opportunity, shooting itself in the foot with two unsportsmanlike conduct penalties.
“I think we had a [couple penalties], but we didn’t cross the [line],” Archer said. “You got to be really smart, and that’s the line — don’t do anything that’s going to hurt us.”
After the Lions were forced to punt, Cornell extended its lead. Near the end of the first quarter, junior wide receiver Eric Gallman made a catch at the first down marker, broke a tackle and ran all the way down to the Columbia 20 for a 51-yard catch-and-run.
Shortly after, the Red worked the ball down to the goal line. On 4th-and-1, junior quarterback Richie Kenney pitched the ball to sophomore running back Delonte Harrell, who easily walked into the end zone. Early in the second frame, Cornell held a two-score lead.
That lead grew once more as the Lions were forced to punt again on the ensuing drive. Cornell needed only five plays to travel 74 yards for its third score.
Kenney went 3-of-3 for 64 yards as he connected with junior wide receivers Phazione McClurge and Mason McManamon to move the Red down to the Columbia 10. Then, Coles made his second trip into the end zone, scoring on a handoff from the 10.
Down by 21 midway through the second quarter, the Lions had to respond and encountered yet another fourth-down situation in its own territory. Having punted five times in a row, Columbia head coach Al Bagnoli made a gutsy call, opting for a fake punt.
The play worked, as punter Drew Schmid caught the Red sleeping, gaining 27 yards on the ground. Lenhart capped off the drive with a 10-yard touchdown pass to the Wainwright, but the PAT doinked off the upright, resulting in the Lions trailing, 21-6.
With time dwindling in the half, Columbia took over after a Cornell punt and executed its two-minute offense. The Lions methodically moved down the field before they stalled out at the Cornell 10. This time, Columbia kicker Alex Felkins’ boot was good, cutting the Red’s lead to 21-9 heading into the half.
“The only thing I said [in the halftime locker room] was, ‘Keep your poise,’” Archer said. “Even though [Columbia] had scored, I didn’t think they had enough to get it done. Everybody just had to use their head, keep their poise and play smart.”
Bagnoli made another bold call out of the intermission. The Lions started the second half with an onside kick, but freshman linebacker Jake Stebbins was there to scoop up the ball.
On the Red’s drive, Cornell stalled for a three-and-out but a Columbia defender ran into senior punter Nickolas Null, resulting in a penalty.
With a new set of downs, Kenney found McClurge for a 24-yard pickup, and sophomore running back Thomas Glover rushed for a three-yard touchdown on a jet sweep.
Cornell displayed its dynamic running back corps on its next drive. Coles, Glover and junior running back SK Howard combined for 72 yards. Howard himself contributed 43 yards thanks to an athletic 32-yard run, putting the Red inside Columbia’s 5. Kenney ended the drive with a QB sneak to give Cornell a 35-9 edge.
The Lions failed to put a dent in their deficit. Early in the fourth quarter, Columbia turned the ball over on downs outside the red zone, and it failed to garner any quality scoring opportunities thereafter.
“We took away some of the stuff they do really well,” said senior cornerback David Jones, assessing the defense’s strong performance. “They like to take some shots and run the ball, and we were just out there playing hard defense with a lot of energy. Everyone was trying to get in on the tackles.”
Cornell coasted in the fourth quarter to earn its second straight victory and send its seniors out on a high note.
“Credit goes to the leadership on this team,” Jones said. “No one came in to take a day off — everyone knew we were a really solid team that could pull out some wins against some great teams. We just kept pushing every week, every day for moments like this.”
Not only will the seniors have this parting memory, but Cornell’s victory serves as a springboard to build success heading into next year.
“I just hope [this win] catapults these younger guys into an Ivy League Championship,” Coles said. “At the end of the day, that’s the goal. Knowing that we got two pretty big wins at the end of the season is awesome — that’s all you want.”
Archer shared his final message to his seniors.
“Thank you,” Archer said. “I look at winning the Ivy League Championship like lighting the Olympic Flame … Different people carry it to get it [to the Olympics]. These guys have carried this flame through some rough terrain and broken through that rough terrain. Now, we know how to run it and let’s continue that thing on and light that sucker next year.”