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In a sport with huge rosters and 22 players on the field at a time, it’s not often that one player — especially one who isn’t a quarterback — single handedly changes the outcome of a game.
But on Saturday, junior linebacker Connor Henderson was the difference maker in Cornell’s 19-15 win over Lehigh at Schoellkopf Field.
Two key plays by Henderson – a fumble recovery in the first half and a pick-six in the second half, were critical to lifting Cornell (3-2, 0-2 Ivy) over the Mountain Hawks (1-6, 1-1 Patriot League).
“[He] loves the game, loves his teammates and plays with tremendous passion,” said head coach David Archer ’05. “It’s not surprising to see him step up and make a momentum changing play… He was the difference in the game.”
The significance of Henderson’s big plays was amplified in the context of a tight and low scoring affair. The two teams combined for two offensive touchdowns and went five for nine on field goal tries in a game that never saw more than a possession of separation.
Henderson’s big plays and Cornell’s strong red zone defense ultimately put the Red on top. On six trips to the red zone, Lehigh only found the end zone once.
“We were in the red zone the majority of the game,” Henderson said. “Everything we do in practice, we’re preparing for that. We pride ourselves on swarming the ball, and that’s what we did.”
The strong red zone defense made up for a sloppy start to the game. Lehigh opened the game with a 17 play, 61-yard drive down the field, but the Red’s defense firmed up in the red zone and forced the Mountain Hawks to settle for a field goal.
On Cornell’s first offensive play of the game, sophomore quarterback Jameson Wang fumbled while trying to get rid of the ball in a collapsing pocket. Wang’s arm appeared to be moving forward, but the replay review system was not working, so the call stood as a fumble and Lehigh took over on the Cornell 15-yard line.
Once again, the defense came up big in the red zone and held the Mountain Hawks to a 21-yard field goal that gave Lehigh an early 6-0 lead.
“I said to the guys after the game, remember this day for future games and for your life because sometimes the day just doesn’t feel like it’s your day,” Archer said. “Somehow these guys found another gear to come away with the victory and I’m proud of that.”
On its second time on the field, Wang and the Cornell offense erased the early deficit. A 29-yard completion to junior wide receiver Nicholas Laboy set Cornell up on Lehigh’s 10-yard line. On the next play, Wang scrambled and took it in himself to give Cornell a 7-6 lead.
Lehigh had no trouble marching down the field on its ensuing possession. The Mountain Hawks methodically put together a nine play, 63-yard drive into the red zone, but Cornell once again stopped the drive and forced Lehigh to attempt a field goal. The Mountain Hawks’ 19-yard field goal missed, which left Cornell’s 7-6 lead intact.
“[Lehigh] was taking the top off and sliding people underneath for the short gains,” Archer said. “But you can’t take the top off in the red zone, and all of our coverage was condensed.”
After a three-and-out by the offense, Henderson came up big with a fumble recovery midway through the second quarter.
“We got heads on the ball and swarmed to the ball, and then someone punched it out,” Henderson said. “That’s just another example of us swarming.”
Cornell capitalized on the turnover with a field goal on its next drive to take a 10-6 lead.
Lehigh answered with an 82-yard run deep into Cornell territory, but was once again forced to settle for a field goal to cut its deficit to 10-9.
Cornell took over with just over two minutes left and a chance to add to its lead before halftime. Instead, a fumble by Wang at midfield set up a touchdown drive for the Mountain Hawks and it was Lehigh that led, 15-10, at half.
“I had a few words at halftime… about picking up our entire operation because I was not happy with how we were playing,” Archer said. “It was sloppy. We didn’t dictate the tempo the way we wanted to.”
Cornell got the ball out of half and had a chance to reclaim the lead, but junior kicker Jackson Kennedy’s field goal try hit the left upright.
Once again, Henderson picked up the offense. Lehigh quarterback Dante Perri rolled out of the pocket on second down, and Henderson crept up to contain him. Perri tried to find a man downfield, but Henderson intercepted the pass and ran it back 31-yards for a touchdown.
“It was amazing,” Henderson said. “It was a surreal feeling.”
Cornell could not convert a two-point attempt, but led 16-15 after the pick-six.
The defense forced a punt on Lehigh’s next possession, but Cornell failed to add to its lead after Kennedy missed a short field goal try.
After driving into Cornell territory, Lehigh had an opportunity to regain the lead in the fourth quarter when it lined up for a 29-yard field goal attempt. Junior defensive lineman Manny Adebi reached up and got a hand on the ball, and the attempt fell short.
With eight and a half minutes left in the game, Cornell put together a brief field goal drive to extend its lead.
Lehigh took over trailing by four with four minutes left. The Red’s defense quickly forced a third and ten, but a questionable pass interference call against Cornell set the Mountain Hawks up in Cornell territory. Lehigh converted a third and eight to enter the red zone with 54 seconds left.
“I think that was indicative of the whole day,” Archer said. “I’m so proud of our response to us not playing well, maybe some calls not going our way… but we dug deep to win the game. That feels awesome.”
With the game on the line, the defense once again stood tall in the red zone. On first down, senior defensive lineman Max Lundeen hurried Perri and forced an incompletion. On second down, Perri dropped back a step before rushing up the middle for six yards. On third down and four from the Cornell twelve, junior safety Brody Kidwell got a hand in front of his man to break up a pass and bring up fourth down.
With the game on the line on fourth and four, junior cornerback Anthony Chideme-Alfaro broke up a pass to seal the win for Cornell.
The win was Cornell’s first at Schoellkopf Field in a full year, and snapped a five game home losing streak. At 3-2 Cornell has already surpassed its win total from last season.
The win also gave Cornell a sweep over its non-conference opponents this season. It is the fifth time in program history that Cornell has finished 3-0 against non-conference opponents.
The Red will hope its success translates to Ivy play when it faces Brown next Saturday in Providence, Rhode Island.