“Great players always respond and that’s what [junior quarterback and offensive co-captain Jeff Mathews] has done,” said Cornell head coach Kent Austin.
Mathews followed arguably the worst game of his career with his best, while junior kicker John Wells nailed a 23-yard field goal with 49.8 seconds remaining to lift the Red past League-leading Princeton, 37-35, on Saturday afternoon at Schoellkopf Field.
Mathews completed 35-of-51 passes for 525 yards and four touchdowns — the third 500-yard game of his career and the Red’s (4-3, 2-2 Ivy League) fourth in its last nine contests. Junior receiver Grant Gellatly had 12 receptions for 215 yards a touchdown, while senior wide receiver and special teams co-captain Luke Tasker added 10 catches for 201 yards and two scores. Cornell entered this season with only one 200-yard individual receiving game in its history, but the team now has four.
Mathews orchestrated his first-ever game-winning drive in a contest’s final five minutes, after junior safety Brian Gee forced a Princeton fumble for the second time with 2:57 to play. Three completions and several clock-milking runs gained 66 yards down to the Tigers 5-yard line, offering Wells a chance to make up for a missed first-quarter field goal and a missed extra point on his previous kick — the reason Princeton (4-3, 3-1) held a one-point advantage in the entertaining shootout.
“I just had to move onto the next kick,” Wells said. “[Sophomore long-snapper] Dylan Chayes had an excellent snap, [holder] Luke Tasker put it right down on the spot and I helped us kick it through. I can’t even explain the feeling. It was amazing. I was so excited and the team believed in me.”
The team also believed in its offense. After a scoreless first period in which the Red possessed the ball for over 12 minutes but failed to cash in, Cornell and Princeton each put up two touchdowns in the second quarter for a 14-14 halftime tie.
The Red rediscovered big offensive plays that were customary in 2011, but elusive so far in 2012. Tasker took a short pass 54 yards to the end zone midway through the second frame to knot the game at 7-all and Mathews found Gellatly over the top of the defense for a 74-yard strike on the next possession to hand the Red a 14-7 advantage. Mathews said the explosive plays relieved an offense that has struggled to execute in the red zone, even if they were primarily a product of Princeton’s blitzes.
“I think [big plays are] always kind of dictated by the team you play and Princeton is a pressure team,” Mathews said. “I knew if we could hold up up front, which we did very well today, our receivers could get open. And we focused a lot this week on yards after the catch … When you go down the field a lot and you’re in the red zone — it’s easier, let’s just say, to get 50 yards."
Princeton’s offense was in general more methodical. Nonetheless, sophomore quarterback Conner Michelsen hit junior wide receiver Roman Wilson for a 72-yard touchdown pass up the right sideline midway through the third quarter that tied the game at 28 — the fourth of five touchdowns traded by both squads on consecutive drives.
Michelsen finished with 390 yards on 29-of-35 passing, although he did throw two interceptions. Red sophomore linebacker Andrew Nelson, who recorded a team-high 12 tackles, picked off a deflected pass on the first possession of the second half that led to an eight-yard touchdown bullet from Mathews to Tasker.
“[Defensive coordinator Kim Dameron] is always stressing getting to the ball and running to the football, [saying] we need 11 heads to the football,” Nelson said. “When we do fly around, when we do give 100 percent effort from whistle to whistle, that’s when good things happen.”
Predictably, the Red offense responded after Michelsen’s touchdown bomb. Tasker made a 37-yard catch on an underthrown ball to set up freshman running back Silas Nacita’s sixth rushing touchdown of the season on third-and-1 from the Princeton 2-yard line.
Wells missed wide left on the point after attempt, however, to keep the Red advantage at six points, 34-28, with 5:22 left in the third quarter. Princeton’s second quarterback, sophomore Quinn Epperly, made the miss more costly when he found senior tight end Mark Hayes in soft coverage for a six-yard score with 8:49 remaining in the game for a 35-34 lead. Epperly also rushed for two short touchdowns.
Cornell marched right back down the field with a solid Mathews throw and diving 30-yard catch by Tasker, followed by a 20-yard completion to junior tight end Ty Bostain. But two short gains and an incompletion created a fourth-and-5 from the Tigers 23, and Mathews fired low to Tasker and the pass was broken up with 6:17 to play.
Princeton took over on downs and made the clock move quickly for the first time all afternoon, mixing three runs and three passes to pick up 46 yards. The Tigers appeared in control with a third-and-2 from the Cornell 31 with just under three minutes to go, but that’s when the Red defense flipped the script.
A wall of Cornell defenders stuffed Princeton’s Dre Nelson for a one-yard gain. The freshman running back fought for more yardage, but Gee punched the ball loose and junior defensive end and defensive co-captain Tre’ Minor recovered.
“[Princeton] did move the ball on us, but when we needed to make a play, when we needed to step up, we did to give our offense a chance,” Nelson said.
The comeback still looked bleak when Mathews twice underthrew wide receiver Kurt Ondash up the left sideline once the senior had beaten the Princeton secondary. But Mathews stayed calm and found his reliable targets on consecutive passes to get the Red into field-goal range.
On third-and-10 from the Cornell 39, last season’s Ivy League Offensive Player of the Year hit Tasker over the middle and the wideout spun away from defenders for a 15-yard gain. Then, Mathews dropped a precise throw into the hands of a well-defended Gellatly for 35 yards down to the Princeton 11.
“The poise that we showed at the end and the leadership helped us,” Austin said. “Our guys just don’t panic on offense. We just go out and execute the next play. You win with execution and not letting the pendulum swing too far emotionally from euphoria to being too negative. You have to strike the proper balance.”
Austin showed faith in his junior kicker by electing to run the ball and run the clock under one minute instead of going for a game-winning touchdown. Wells did not disappoint, splitting the uprights on a 23-yard boot for redemption and a 37-35 lead as the Red sideline and a crowd of 4,420 erupted with cheers.
Princeton’s offense had 42 seconds to try to win the game, but sophomore linebacker Taylor Betros made the Tigers final chance short-lived, cutting off a Princeton receiver’s route and intercepting Michelsen on the first play to seal the thrilling victory.
Princeton committed four turnovers on the day while the Red had none. The Cornell defense allows 464.7 yards per outing, but the ball-hawking unit has forced 15 turnovers in seven games this season.
“The difference to the game was the forced turnovers,” Austin said. “Our defense has found a knack to get us turnovers, especially at key times in the game. The good news is we were able to capitalize on that today offensively.”
In fact, everybody has capitalized offensively on Schoellkopf Field lately. Mathews, Red senior backup Chris Amrhein, Michelsen and Monmouth’s Kyle Frazier combined for 1,889 passing yards in Cornell’s last two home games.
As for Mathews, it was an exceptional showing a week after he threw three untimely interceptions in a loss at Brown — just in case anyone doubted his professional potential. Austin wasn’t afraid to scrutinize Mathews’ performance against the Bears, but the gunslinger said that comes with the territory of being the focal point of a pass-heavy offense.
“I told Jeff when he first started playing, ‘When I quit pushing you and quit getting onto you and quit trying to push you to another level is when you’ve got to worry,’” Austin said. “We have a great relationship. He understands what’s going on — we need great play out of that position the way we’re structured offensively right now. We’re putting a lot on his plate.”
“When you don’t play well, you should be criticized,” Mathews added. “I didn’t give us a chance to win last week, and I think as a player you’ve just got to respond. I expect Coach Austin to get on me and to coach me hard, and I think that’s going to make us a better team and me individually a better player.”
The club indeed already appears in a better position than last Saturday. The win hands the Tigers their first Ivy loss and moves the Red within one game of first-place with three contests remaining. Austin also reflected more broadly on the huge triumph for the team’s confidence.
“I told the team afterwards that I don’t think I’ve ever been prouder of a football team,” Austin said. “That might be the hardest we’ve played since I’ve been here … Every so often, you kind of have a key victory when you’re trying to build a championship program that catapults you a little bit further forward than normal, and I think this will probably turn out to be one of those times.”