Oh No, Not Again: Splendorio Seals Another Improbable Cornell Comeback
In what may go down in the annals of Harvard football history as one of the most devastating losses it ever suffered, the Cornell Big Red scored 29 unanswered second-half points on Saturday, defeating the Crimson 29-28 in front of 9,270 at Harvard Stadium. Cornell (2-2, 2-0 Ivy) sealed the win when co-captain Joe Splendorio blocked Harvard's last-second 27-yard field-goal attempt to end the game.
"Obviously, we didn't handle prosperity very well," Harvard Coach Tim Murphy said. "We've never been ahead in a game, so this was kind of new territory for us."
With Harvard's once mighty 28-0 lead, whittled down to 28-23, Cornell junior quarterback Ricky Rahne took over at his own 12-yard line with 4:01 to play. Back to-back first down completions brought the Big Red to midfield. But on fourth-and-five from the Crimson 48, Rahne found Tim Hermann wide open on a post pattern and Hermann took it all the way to the end zone, for a stunning 29-28 lead.
Cornell missed the two-point conversion, setting up a potentially game-winning drive for Harvard with 2:45 left.
Junior quarterback Neil Rose took over at his own 26-yard line. He promptly connected with junior wideout Dan Farley for 8 yards to begin a near textbook two-minute drill. Sophomore split end Carl Morris had two critical catches on this drive. He caught a 9-yard slant on fourth-and-1 from the Crimson 35. Two plays later, he had a 36 yard reception over the middle, which brought the ball to the Cornell 20 with 1:19 remaining.
Instead of continuing the air attack, Murphy was content on letting sophomore tailback Matt Leiszler run three times up the middle to set up first-and-goal at the Cornell 10 with 37 seconds on the clock and one timeout.
At this point, Murphy made a highly controversial decision to have Rose take a knee, call the Crimson's final timeout and let freshman placekicker Robbie Wright decide the outcome of the game with a 27-yard field goal attempt. Splendorio tipped it wide right as time expired.
"I thought real hard about [taking a shot in the end zone]," Murphy said. "But I'd have killed myself if we turned the ball over when we had a chip shot field goal to win the game."
The dramatic ending was reminiscent of last year's contest with Cornell.
With four minutes left in the game at Ithaca, N.Y., Harvard led 23-10 and had the Big Red pinned at fourth-and-long. Yet, a defensive holding penalty gave Rahne an opportunity to storm back to a 24-23 lead. Harvard had a chance to reclaim victory on a last-second 40-yard field goal, but the 6'6 All-American, Splendorio deflected the kick as Cornell won by a point.
"It's impossible not to [think about last year]," Murphy said. "But, I don't want to hear any of this stuff about jinx or destiny baloney. Technically, [Splendorio] shouldn't be able to block the kick from that distance. It wasn't much more than an extra-point."
Regardless, Harvard should never have been in the position to let Cornell back in the game after completely dominating the first half of play.
Harvard scored on the opening drive of the game, keyed by a bizarre play that turned out to be just the start of a wild contest. Rose connected with Farley along the right sideline for 29 yards to the Cornell 20, when Big Red cornerback Jimmy Vattes punched the ball out of Farley's hands. The loose ball rolled eighteen yards forward before fellow Crimson wide-out Sam Taylor fell on the ball at the Cornell 2-yard line. Two plays later, Rose ran into the end zone to put the Crimson up, 7-0.
A Cornell three-and-out then gave Harvard the ball on its own 20. The Crimson drove down the field swiftly, only to miss a field goal from 45 yards out.
Cornell went three-and-out again, and Harvard took over at midfield. The Crimson drove to Cornell's 16 yard-line before attempting another field goal. Wright's kick prophetically sailed wide right.
Rose dominated in the second quarter. He rushed for two more touchdowns and connected on three passes of over twenty yards.
The seemingly decisive fourth touchdown occurred on a "Tim Murphy special"--the halfback option. Leiszler received the pitch from Rose and found Taylor open sixteen yards ahead of him for the touchdown, capping a 28-0 half.
The halftime statistics fully illustrated the Crimson's domination. Harvard had 400 yards of total offense to Cornell's 87. Sophomore tailback Nick Palazzo ran for 107 yards and Rose had 184 yards on 12-17 passing. Cornell's leading rusher at the half was Rahne, meanwhile, completed only six of 21 attempts for 49 yards. Harvard amassed 19 first downs to the Big Red's three.
The second half was a different story.
"We calmed down at halftime," Cornell Coach Peter Mangurian said. "Harvard is a great football team. They got the whole bag. But a lot of things can happen in a half. That's why you stick in there. My players showed tremendous character, winning this game."
After a miserable half, Rahne stepped into the spotlight. He threw for 343 yards and four touchdowns, two in the third quarter and two more in the fourth.
The Crimson gave Rahne a little boost to start the third quarter. Two defensive pass interference calls sustained an opening drive that ended with a 24-yard bullet to Edgar Romney.
Cornell gambled on its following possession, attempting to convert a fourth-and-7 from the Harvard 21. Rahne scrambled for nine yards and subsequently Splendorio in the end zone on an 11-yard lob to cut the lead to 15. Though the extra point was wide right, Cornell had transformed a blowout into a ballgame.
"After we got to 13, I thought we had a chance," Mangurian said. "And it's not even the score as much as it is you're finally doing something positive. Because up to that point we'd just been sputtering on every turn."
Junior cornerback Andy Fried appeared to slow Cornell's momentum at the end of the third quarter with an interception in the back left corner of the end zone. Unfortunately for the Crimson, Rahne's fourth quarter performance was more impressive than his third.
Rahne began the quarter's scoring with a 46-yard touchdown pass on third-and-8 to Keith Ferguson with just over twelve minutes to play.
The Big Red followed up Ferguson's score with a 33-yard field goal by junior Peter Iverson. The Iverson field goal, which barely hooked inside the left upright, gave Cornell a chance to go ahead with a touchdown. Harvard's lack of offensive prowess gave Cornell the ball again with 4:01 to play. Seven plays and 88 yards later, Cornell took the lead for good.
"I accept responsibility," said Murphy on Harvard's collapse. "When you're up 28-0, there is no excuse for losing the game, period."
Rahne ended the game 28-57 for 391 yards. Rose threw for 310 yards, and Harvard, as a team, rushed for 263 yards on 47 carries, though 200 of the rushing yards came in the first half. Cornell derailed the Crimson ground attack in the second half by sticking an extra man in the box.
Splendorio, who single-handedly won the game in the final seconds, finished with nine catches for 78 yards and a touchdown.
"As soon as I saw it was no good, I couldn't believe it. Same thing as last year," Splendorio said.
The victory marked the second straight one-point win for Cornell over an Ivy League opponent. Yale also missed a last-second field goal attempt wide right in its 24-23 loss. If Harvard had held on for the win, it would have defeated two of the top Ivy teams in its first conference action.
Harvard takes on powerhouse Lehigh, a team that defeated Cornell 35-16 on Sept. 30, this Saturday at Harvard Stadium.