BETHLEHEM, P.A. — Coming off its best season since 2011, football returned to action this Saturday, Sept. 16, when it traveled to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania to take on Lehigh. The Red jumped out to a 17 point lead early and never looked back, forcing two turnovers in the second half and winning its opening game, 23-20.
The Red (1-0) finished 5-5 last year — its first .500 campaign since 2011. Cornell swept its nonconference schedule — including a 19-15 win at home against Lehigh. The Mountain Hawks (1-2) was coming off a win against Merrimack on Saturday, Sept. 9.
Cornell started the game with the ball after Lehigh deferred. The Red could not put anything together on its opening drive, getting one first down before being forced to punt.
The Cornell defense was dominant throughout the first half, not allowing Lehigh to get a first down for the first 29 minutes of the game. The Red quickly got the ball back, and a 21-yard punt return by sophomore wide receiver Davon Kiser set Cornell up with solid field position on its own 45.
It was on its second drive that the Cornell offense, led by junior quarterback Jameson Wang, began to show its strength. The Red needed just two plays to score –– starting with an 18-yard back shoulder catch by senior wide receiver Nicholas Laboy to put Cornell in Lehigh territory.
On the next play, Wang found Kiser over the middle for a 37-yard touchdown. The drive took 46 seconds, and the Red was quickly leading, 7-0.
Wang was unstoppable in the first half, going 13 for 17 with 226 yards. After a couple of three-and-outs from the Mountain Hawks, Wang started off a drive from the Cornell 10 by finding Kiser once again, this time burning the Lehigh defense for a 68-yard pass.
Two plays later, the Cornell quarterback found sophomore wide receiver Parker Woodring on the right sideline, who made a diving catch in the end zone to put the Red up by two touchdowns. The Red went 90 yards on three plays, taking up just a minute-and-a-half of game time to lead, 14-0.
Cornell entered the second quarter with a comfortable lead and the ball, driving in Lehigh territory. Despite running 17 plays and eating up nearly 10 minutes of game clock, the Red was unable to score, as senior kicker/punter Jackson Kennedy missed a 30-yard field goal attempt.
Kennedy had another opportunity just a few minutes later, after the stout Cornell defense forced another three-and-out. Mixing the rush and the pass, the Red drove 47 yards before stalling on the Lehigh 15. Kennedy drilled the 32-yard field goal attempt, giving Cornell a 17-0 lead.
With just over a minute left in the half, the Lehigh offense began to come to life. After failing to convert a first down on its first five drives, the Mountain Hawks moved the ball 65 yards on seven plays, culminating in a two-yard touchdown rush. Despite controlling the game for the majority of the first half, the Red went to the locker room up just 10, 17-7.
Coming back for the second half, the Cornell defense continued to shine. After allowing one first down, senior cornerback Paul Lewis III got a sack on third down to force a punt.
After a series of three-and-outs, the Mountain Hawks began to drive midway through the third quarter. Nevertheless, with the ball on the Cornell 47, the Red’s defense stepped up, as senior linebacker Holt Fletcher came up with an interception following a tip off the hands of a Lehigh receiver.
Looking to capitalize on the turnover, Wang began to show his ability as a dual-threat. The Cornell quarterback rushed twice to pick up a first down before finding Kiser on the sideline for a 10-yard grab to put the Red in Lehigh territory.
Taking the snap from the Mountain Hawks’ 40, Wang once again ran it himself, finding open space in the middle of the field and thundering 35 yards to create an instant goal-to-go opportunity. However, after three plays, the Red found itself with a 4th-and-goal from the Lehigh 1. Opting to go for it, Wang attempted a sneak, but was stood up by the Mountain Hawk defense.
Backed up into its own end zone and looking to generate offense at the end of the third quarter, Lehigh was able to get a first down, and with it some breathing room. But on the first play of the fourth quarter, the pass went off the hands of a Mountain Hawk receiver, was tipped up again by a Cornell defender before being secured by Fletcher for his second interception of the day.
Faced with an immediate scoring opportunity, Wang picked up a first down with his legs. Working inside the red zone, the Cornell offense stalled, and Kennedy connected on his second field goal of the day to give the Red a 13-point lead, 20-7.
The Lehigh offense, which had shown no sparks outside of the late first half touchdown drive, began to heat up midway through the fourth. The Mountain Hawks put together a 14-play, 65-yard drive, capped off by a four-yard touchdown rush from quarterback Brayten Silbor. Just like that, it was a one-possession game.
Feeling the pressure for the first time in the game, the Red embarked on a crucial drive. Cornell had a chance to ice the game with points, but a stop would open the door for Lehigh to steal a win.
Starting at the Cornell 32, Wang started the drive with his legs, bracketing two incompletions with three rushes to get the Red close to midfield. Faced with a pivotal 3rd and 8, it was the Wang-Kiser connection once again, this time for 26 yards and a first down.
After pushing into the red zone, Cornell’s offense stalled. Kennedy knocked through his third field goal of the day, and the Red went back up by two possessions, 23-14.
Continuing to fight, Lehigh was able to move the ball down the field against a soft Cornell zone. With just over a minute left, the Mountain Hawks scored to draw within three.
Needing to recover an onside kick, Lehigh did not get a fortunate bounce, and the Red pounced on it. Wang ran out the clock, and Cornell left Pennsylvania with the win, 23-20.
It was a breakout game for the quarterback-wide receiver duo of Wang and Kiser. Wang finished with 378 total yards — 293 through the air and 85 on the ground — and two touchdowns. Kiser torched the Mountain Hawk defense for 141 yards and a touchdown, all on just four receptions.
The Red now looks forward to its first conference game of the season, when it travels to New Haven, Connecticut, on Saturday, Sept. 23 to take on Yale (0-1). Kickoff is set for noon, and the game will be broadcasted on ESPN+.