Tigers Worn Down By Cornell, 29-28
BY JAY GREENBERG
In the final and simplest analysis, Cornell’s Nickolas Null drilled a 43-yard field goal in the final minute and Princeton’s Tavish Rice missed from 45 just before the buzzer. But as always there were plays not made on both sides of the ball that doomed the Tigers to a painful, 29-28 defeat by the Big Red Saturday night on Powers Field at Princeton Stadium.
With their title hopes probably at end with a second league loss, where does one start to list the ways in which they didn’t get it done?
There were four drive-damaging false starts by a team that had been almost unbelievably clean; two long returns allowed by special teams that had yielded almost nothing on kickoffs all season; and two interceptions thrown by the heretofore uncannily-accurate Chad Kanoff, the Tigers led by 11 at the half, by nine in the fourth quarter, and still failed to close it out.
But even up 21-10 at half and 28-16 early in the fourth quarter, the depleted Tigers were in trouble, needing one more break, or one more big play, to put it away and never got it.
Incredibly, they lost two more defensive linemen, Matt Hampson and Joe Percival, on top of the already lost All American Kurt Holuba, on top of starting nose tackle Jake Strain, on top of rush linebacker Mike Wagner.
So how deep was the Tiger tank supposed to be when Cornell, trailing 28-26, got the ball back at its own 33 and 4:59 remaining and successfully threw sideline pattern after pattern to move themselves into field position?
The Tigers, who also have been playing without their defensive captain, linebacker Mark Fossati, since the third week, were down to two freshmen on the defensive line on that final drive. One of them Samuel Wright, made a second-down stop on a run, and freshman corner CJ Wall made a third-down tackle that left anything but a chip shot for Null, who nevertheless put the football so high into the net that the kick would have been good from 50 or more.
The Tigers, who had used their time outs to give themselves a shot, had 48 seconds to get a field goal try of their own. A 24-yard pass from Kanoff to Tiger Bech almost had them there—at the Cornell 30– with 24 seconds for at least two plays to get the ball at least 10 yards closer. But Richard Bush, who had been troubled by Big Red subterfuge on his snaps all night, took another false start penalty and a five-yard slant Kanoff jammed into Jesper Horsted put the ball only at the 27.
Rice has never made one longer than 40 – twice in his two seasons–and he didn’t come close on this one, squibbing it short and wide. You win by having your players in positions in which they are most comfortable. And the kicker wasn’t the only Tiger outside of his range as the Big Red, who moved into a first-place tie with Columbia and Yale at 3-1, inexorably came back eight, nine, and ten yards at a time.
“Charlie Tomassetti is basically a freshman–a redshirt who didn’t play a snap the last two weeks (because of injury), now playing 40 snaps,” said Surace. “That’s tough; we are playing guys whom we didn’t even know their names at this time last year,
“We fought our butts off. We are playing as hard as we can. We got worn down by not making enough plays to get off the field.”
‘It seems like every (second half) series, we came up a little short.”
The offense made those plays in the first half, driving 77 yards to a hurdling Kanoff 14-yard touchdown run, and two scoring throws from Kanoff to Stephen Carlson following drives of 80 and 76 yards. To that point, the Big Red wasn’t much more successful against the two-headed Carlson-Horsted monster as anyone else the Tigers have played. But ultimately the failure to get more than a sporadic running game going left Kanoff in too many third-and-longs. The Tigers converted only six of 15.
“[Cornell] didn’t really make any adjustments,” said Surace. “They have fabulous defensive backs who continued to play man as they have all season.”
The Tigers had only drive in them in the second half, answering a 10-play, 67 yard, Cornell drive that cut the lead to 21-16 with a march culminating in a seven-yard touchdown run by Ryan Quigley.
Thus, they had a two-score lead at 28-16 and then got a stop, too, on a tackle by Wright and an end zone break up by Wall, forcing a Null field goal that still left Cornell down by nine.
But Kanoff was sacked on first down and then on third-and-11 tried to let Carlson out jump his man again. Cornerback DJ Woullard had inside position and made the catch instead, giving Cornell a short field from the 50. The Big Red needed only six plays to score on an 8-yard run by their running quarterback Jake Jattis.
Barring a turnover, Princeton needed to score another touchdown to put away the game. On third-and-10, Kanoff squeezed one into Horsted for a first down, but the Big Red defense stopped Volker on first down and Bech on second and third and got the ball back with plenty of time to go about their methodical ways.
“It seem like every series we came up a little short,” said Surace.
Cornell’s bread-and-butter ground game was held to a respectable 163 yards by Princeton’s third-in the-nation rushing defense. But there was little pass rush, and Princeton’s young pass defense needed too much help to risk any all-out blitzing. Cornell, which moved into a first place tie with Yale and Columbia that the Tigers instead had expected to share at the end of the night, outgained the Tigers on the ground by 58 yards, even though their All Ivy candidate running back, Chris Walker, was lost in the third quarter.
Princeton, which had averaged barely over three penalties a game in their first six contests, suffered three on their first two possessions. “The other team is yelling ‘Go!’ before the snap, and it is really difficult for our linemen to understand that,” said Surace. “ It stopped because the umpire warned them.”
One of the false starts thwarted the game’s first drive, which ended at the Cornell 34, but Princeton overcame the second, thanks to a fourth-down conversion on a look-in to Bech. A pass interference call against Carlson gave the Tigers a first down at the 18, and on a third-and-six, Kanoff rolled and leaped the last defender for a touchdown.
A Cornell drive was thwarted by a Ben Ellis interception, but on the next play, Kanoff threw behind Bech on a crossing pattern and the resultant tip went right to Nick Gesualdi, who returned the ball to the 12. On the first play, quarterback Dalton Banks hit Hayes Nolte in front of Chase Williams and Cornell had tied the score at seven.
Kanoff lead the Tigers right back with a roll and throw to Bech at the Cornell 44, a first-down throw to Jordan Argue and then found Carlson breaking past safety Sean Scullen in the end zone to put Princeton back ahead 14-7.
When Walker was stopped shot on a third-and-one, David Archer chose to punt and two first-down passes to Horsted and third and fourth-down conversions by Volker put the ball at the Big Red 20. From there Kanoff put the ball up in the end zone and Carlson out-jumped Scullen for the touchdown and a 21-7 lead.
Cornell had plenty of time to answer before the half, but Percival turned in a run by Jake Jattis and Melancon saved a first down with a tackle at the five. Facing a fourth-and a foot, Archer decided on a Null field goal and Tigers went to the locker room with a 21-10 lead.
But they needed another big play to put it away. And Cornell’s defense didn’t give it up. Princeton gave ground grudgingly in the long second half, but, in the absence of much pass rush by a decimated defensive line, did give it up regardless. Tom Johnson had to be everywhere to make 16 tackles,
“He played his heart out, flying around the field after they had to stitch him up at the half,” said Surace. “It’s hard for me to yell and scream at them when you have guys like that.”
He could instead eviscerate fate for the plague upon his D-line. But the time is better spent getting ready for Penn and hoping there are still more twists in the plot that will produce a two-loss set of champions this year. If that seems unlikely, there should eventually be considerable consolation in having everybody on this defense, except Chance Melancon and Quincy Wolff, back and likely much healthier, next season. But no one is thinking that way right now.