They say the good teams find a way to win. And the good players, well, they just enable.
On Saturday afternoon at Schoellkopf Field, senior cornerback Emani Fenton intercepted a pass in the end zone with 23 seconds remaining to preserve Cornell’s 21-19 win over Princeton and hand the Red its first Ivy League victory of 2010 –– and first under new head coach Kent Austin.
“[Princeton’s Trey Peacock] is a really great receiver and last year he made the game-winning touchdown, so in my head I was just thinking, ‘We’ve got a score to settle!’ ... I saw the ball and just tried to get out there and make the best play I could,” Fenton said in the post-game press conference.
In addition to his game-saving pick, Fenton had five tackles and broke up three passes, including the Tigers’ attempt at a two-point conversion when they brought the score to 21-19 with less than six minutes to play in the fourth quarter.
“The game always still comes down to players making plays. I’ve told them that since I’ve been here; I told them not to wait for other people to make plays,” Austin said. “When your number’s called, great players make great plays at the right time. And that’s exactly what Emani did.”
While Cornell’s players inevitably breathed a collective sigh of relief after beating a conference rival for the first time since Sept. 26 of last year, Austin maintained that “I don’t really look at it as getting the monkey off of our back … I’ve told the players just focus on things that are important ... getting better individually, getting better collectively, and don’t look at the outside distractions. Whether they’re positive distractions or negative distractions, they’re still distractions at the end of the day.”
To top off Fenton’s late-game heroics, his No. 9 counterpart freshman quarterback Jeff Mathews had arguably one of his best showings in a Cornell uniform. Mathews completed 28-of-44 passes for 243 yards –– five shy of his season-high 248 versus Yale on Homecoming –– and two touchdowns to go along with one interception.
Fellow freshman Grant Gellatly had 139 all-purpose yards, including a career-best 97 yards rushing.
On the defensive end, senior far safety Ben Heller returned to the lineup after missing two games with a concussion, only to be removed during the first drive. He was replaced by freshman Kevin Laird, who made the most of his opportunity, notching a team-high nine tackles. Fellow freshman Justin Harris added four while classmate Kevin Marchand tallied three tackles and recovered a fumble for a touchdown.
They weren’t the only ones “doing work” defensively, as sophomore linebacker Cody Roberts was also responsible for six tackles, a sack and the forced fumble that was recovered by Marchand for a touchdown.
As a whole, Cornell’s defense held Princeton quarterback Andrew Dixon to 3-of-7 pass completions in the first quarter for only a 16-yard gain. Dixon would go on to finish the game with 215 yards and a touchdown on 19-of-38 passing. His main target on the day, All-Ivy honorable mention Trey Peacock, managed seven receptions for 136 yards and two touchdowns.
Saturday afternoon proved a day of firsts all-around. In a battle of first-year head coaches, it was Austin who came out on top and earned his first win at home. Additionally, sophomores Luke Tasker and Kurt Ondash scored their first career collegiate touchdowns, with Tasker finishing with 68 yards on seven catches. Junior wide receiver Shane Savage also managed five catches for 75 yards.
Cornell drew first blood with time expiring in the first quarter, as Mathews found Ondash for a two-yard score following an 11-play, 85-yard drive capped off by senior kicker Brad Greenway converting the extra-point opportunity.
The Red dominated possession time in the first quarter and controlled the ball for just over 11 minutes compared to the Tigers’ 3:52.
Neither side put up more points on the scoreboard until 1:24 to go in the second quarter, when a three-and-out put Princeton at Cornell’s 41-yard line. Despite facing pressure from the Red defense, Dixon was able to bide his time and fire a 16-yard pass that found Peacock in the end zone. Patrick Jacob sent his extra-point kick wide, thus sending both teams into the locker room with Cornell up, 7-6.
As the third quarter got underway, the Tigers would, as the cliché goes, see nothing but Red. Princeton was held to three plays or less on all four of its possessions, while Cornell wasted no time in adding to its lead.
The Red’s opening drive was highlighted by a 13-yard rush courtesy of junior tight end Ryan Houska, and Mathews connecting with Tasker two plays later for a 14-yard gain. Mathews would again find Tasker on first and goal for the touchdown, with Greenway handing Cornell a 14-6 advantage.
“Last week our third quarter we felt lost us the game, almost. ... Today ... we really focused on coming out strong in the third quarter,” Mathews said. “We talked about it and we needed to score right away, and I think we drove the ball down and were able to make some plays around the goal line.”
Less than five minutes later, a clutch punt by senior Drew Alston trapped the Tigers at their own 10-yard line, and on second down Roberts’ sack of Dixon forced the ball loose and into the hands of Marchand, who returned it for a touchdown. Greenway converted his third extra-point opportunity of the contest, putting Cornell up, 21-6.
After the Red defense forced another three-and-out, Cornell moved down the field 47 yards on nine plays to set up a 43-yard field goal attempt by Greenway. Kicking into the wind, the ball went wide right to keep the score fixed.
Sixteen of the last 20 meetings between these two teams had been decided by a touchdown or less, so it was only fitting that Saturday’s matchup continue the trend.
On its second possession of the fourth quarter, Princeton managed to string together a 13-play, 85-yard drive that culminated in freshman running back Brian Mills carrying the ball two yards into the end zone with 8:04 remaining. Jacob redeemed himself for his earlier miss, bringing the Tigers back into the game at 21-13.
Princeton’s next drive featured a 92-yard touchdown pass from Dixon to Peacock, though the Tigers’ attempt at a two-point conversion for the tie would come up short thanks to the efforts of Fenton.
To say Cornell’s attempt at a rebuttal did not go according to plan would be an understatement, as Princeton’s Tim Kingsbury recovered a fumble by Tasker at the Tigers’ own three-yard line. The visiting team engineered a 73-yard drive that put it within field goal range, though elected to go for the touchdown after undoubtedly flashing back to Greenway’s prior miss while kicking into the wind.
Thus the stage was set for the dramatic Fenton-Peacock matchup, with the 5-9 cornerback ultimately making good on his word to “settle the score.”
With that, Mathews took a knee twice to run out the clock and hand Cornell an emotional conference win that had been over a year in the making.