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All-Ivy football players earn their honors by making good, solid contributions, play after play after play.
You can put Cornell's John McNiff into the All-Ivy category. The junior running back has already lived up to his Ivy League Sophomore of the Year label by rushing for 420 yards this season, including a 192-yard effort to spark the Big Red's 20-17 win over Harvard at The Stadium Saturday.
McNiff's two touchdowns in the third quarter, including a 66-yard jaunt down the right sideline, were the highlights as Cornell overcame a 10-3 halftime deficit to take a 17-10 lead just five minutes into the third period.
Sure, McNiff's whopping 8.9 yards per carry are the focus of Crimson reflections about the loss--especially when Harvard had allowed only 1.8 yards per rush entering the game.
"We said all week in practice that this had to be the game of our lives," McNiff said.
And it was the win of their lives, putting the Big Red (2-2 overall, 2-0 Ivy) in sole possession of first place, as Harvard (2-2, 1-1) dropped into a fourth-place tie with Princeton.
But an All-Ivy performance does not necessarily a memory make. Memories are made by one play--often a game-deciding one. And Harvard football players will remember Cornell safety Gerry Willinger and kicker Matthew Hepfer, not McNiff, when they think of "what could have been" or how "this one got away."
With 40 seconds remaining in the game and Harvard in position for an easy game-tying field goal with a 3rd-and-goal at the Cornell 9-yard line, it was Willinger who blitzed Adam Lazarre-White and chased the Harvard QB all the way back to the 29-yard line--far out of field goal position.
"What Harvard showed on the final play they hadn't shown all day," Cornell CoachJim Hofher said. "We reacted to it. You can'tpractice for everything Harvard shows you. You'vejust got to visualize, 'If this, then that....'"
One play. One unheard of play that should neverhave happened. Everyone knew the stakes. Restichad specifically reminded Lazarre-White in thepreceding timeout not to take a big loss.
"Our game plan was to attack with one extraperson," said Willinger, who recorded three sacks."I just happened to be the one in the back-field.It didn't look like anyone tried to block me."
Of such are memories made.
Hepfer's memory had come just minutes before onthe previous drive. The Big Red sludged through a38-yard drive behind short bursts by McNiff andScott Oliaro, but it stalled at the Harvard26-yard line.
Enter Hepfer, lining up for a field goal whichhad a slim-to-none chance of success, and itseemed like Slim had already left for Texas.
But the junior placekicker had hidden Slim inhis back pocket and booted a wind-aided,career-best 43-yard field goal to give the Big Reda lead with with five minutes remaining in thegame.
For Joe Montana and the San Francisco 49ers,five minutes is an eternity to erase a three-pointdeficit. For Lazarre-White and the Crimson, it isjust enough time to force a tie.
But Willinger didn't even let it do that.
Despite the extra pressure of an ineffectivepassing attack that yielded just 92 yards,Harvard's offensive line--missing Captain TomCallahan for the entire game and center DarrinDuda for the second half--was able to control theline of scrimmage.
Senior halfback Andy Bell--under pressurebecause of his tendency to fumble the ball--pickedup 89 yards to lead the Crimson's 187-yard rushingeffort.
"If your passing game is working, it forces thedefense to play honest," Bell said. "If youcomplete eight passes for 92 yards, they don'thave to stay honest."
On its first possession, the Crimson hadmarched 82 yards in 13 plays to take an early 7-0lead. A Lazarre-White seven-yard run on 3rd-and-7and two Andy Bell receptions for 39 yardshighlighted the possession, which culminated witha two-yard Bell scoring run.
In the third quarter, with Cornell holding thelead, 17-10, the Crimson churned out another longmarch--this time a 12-play, 76-yard effort--to tiethe game. Once again it was Bell who was thebulwark, carrying the ball four times for 29 yardsand the tying touchdown plunge.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Harvarddefense lived up to its stingy reputation despiteMcNiff's big gains on the ground. Although the BigRed rushed for 117 yards--including 90 byMcNiff--in the first half, the defense limitedCornell to a 24-yard field goal by Hepfer.
Three Minutes of Charity
But after intermission, the Harvard D joinedthe special teams unit in a generous three minutesof gift-giving. On the Big Red's first offensiveplay of the half, McNiff cut back against thegrain and broke through a bigger-than-Rhode Islandhole and pranced down the right sideline untouchedfor the tying score.
"It was a broken play," McNiff said. "It wassupposed to go right but I went left. Then I sawChris go right and said, 'Uh oh.' I think the flowof the defense was thrown off when I started thewrong way."
A flustered Jay Rideout and Colby Maher flubbedthe ensuing kickoff, which bounced off Rideout'sshoulder pads and into the hands of Cornell's RobLeven at the Harvard 21-yard line. Five Oliarorushes brought the ball down to the 3-yard line,where McNiff took it over for the go-ahead TD.Big Red, 20-17 at The Stadium
Cornell 0-3-14-3--20HARVARD 7-3-7-0--17
H--Bell 2 run (S. Johnson kick), 7:48
C--FG Hepfer 24, 11:26
H--FG S. Johnson 31, 0:04
C--John McNiff 66 run, (Hepfer kick), 2:19
C--McNiff 3 run, (Hepfer kick), 5:00
H--Bell 1 run, (S.Johnson kick), 14:08
C--FG Hepfer 41, 10:15
Rushing: C--McNiff 22-189, Oliaro 15-55,Cochrane 10-12, Case 2-6, Datchyshyn 1-3; H--Bell20-89, M.Johnson 14-56, Hirsch 4-28, Joyce 4-28,Maher 1-8, Lazarre-White 16(-22).
Passing: C--Cochrane 8-15-0-64;H--Lazarre-White 8-13-0-92.
Receiving: C--McNiff 2-18, P. Reynolds2-17, Oliaro 2-13, Grant 2-10, Branon 1-8; H--Bell2-39, Lombara 2-19, Maher 2-18, Mrowka, 1-14,M.Johnson 1-2.
Missed Field Goals: C--Hepfer 41;H--S.Johnson 45.
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