Riding high on a two-game winning streak, Cornell sprint football (2-5, 1-3 North Division) looked to close the year with its third win of the season against the United States Military Academy (6-1, 4-0 North Division), who had already clinched the North Division title with an undefeated record in conference play.
In what was expected to be one of the toughest games of the season for the Red, it hosted Army at Schoellkopf Field with the intention of breaking up its hot streak but, ultimately, lost 66-6.
It was clear that the game would be an uphill battle for the Red from the get-go. Although Cornell’s defense has proved strong throughout most of the season, Army marched fifty yards down the field on just three plays, culminating in a 27-yard touchdown run to open up the scoring. Despite the Red’s best efforts, Army’s offensive onslaught continued as the Black Nights ultimately accumulated nearly five hundred yards of total offense and nine touchdowns, including a 44 yard-punt return near the end of the first quarter.
Cornell’s offense didn’t fare much better as it could not move the ball. The Red was only able to convert two first downs and compile just 53 yards of total offense on 52 plays. Despite losing the time-of-possession battle by only seven minutes, the Red went 1-for-15 on third down and 0-for-4 on fourth down, a recipe that made moving the chains extremely difficult. Cornell was forced to punt nine times, and it never reached Army’s side of the field while on offense. Head Coach Bob Gneo felt that the team’s execution on offense was its primary issue.
“We felt we had a good plan going in but we just couldn’t execute,” Gneo said. “It was just one of those nights where everything we tried kind of came back to us – we didn’t really execute as well as we should’ve.”
Nevertheless, in the midst of a rough game against its strongest opponent yet, the Red did have one moment of magic.
Midway through the third quarter, the Red found itself down 53-0. With a victory out of sight, the Red could have given up, looked towards next year and allowed Army to continue dominating the field.
The team did not settle for this option. After finding itself creeping in on Cornell territory after five straight rushing plays, Army lined up for its first pass play on the drive. However, the play was quickly blown up, as senior cornerback Harrison Nicholas jumped the three-yard out and intercepted Army’s quarterback with momentum on his side and room to run. With no one to stop him, Nicholas made a 45-yard house call, scoring the Red’s only touchdown of the game.
“The feeling was pretty surreal,” Nicholas said. “Although we were losing by a pretty significant margin, our defense was still fighting hard like we had done all season.”
Having practiced defending that same route, Nicholas was prepared to make the play.
“I remember recognizing that the receiver was running a route that we had drilled several times in practice,” Nicholas said. “Then, I sort of blacked out and [focused on] running into the end zone. That play doesn’t happen if our defense hangs our heads and quits on the game.”
As a freshman, Nicholas found his first collegiate interception in his very first game of the season. Now, as a senior, he celebrated his last game as a member of the Red by completing Cornell’s first and only pick-six of the season. Nicholas’ contributions to the team over his four years at Cornell have not gone unnoticed.
“Harrison is a four-year starter for us, leader of the defense and a heck of a player,” Gneo said. “He’s been someone who works extremely hard, is a leader [and] takes offense to getting beat like that. That’s the kind of guy we need to move this program forward.”
The Red fell to Army by a final score of 66-6, ending the season with a 2-5 record. Despite not reaching the playoffs, it is clear that the team’s camaraderie is built on more than wins and losses.
“This season and every season over the last four years has been special in different ways,” Nicholas said. “This year was especially unique and full-circle because I was able to vicariously re-live my freshman experience through my brother Evan. My teammates have made this experience unlike any other on campus. I will definitely miss seeing them every day in the locker room and on the field.”