With six minutes left in the third quarter, the Yale football team found itself in a hauntingly familiar situation.
The Bulldogs (2–0,1–0 Ivy), who had scored early and often and led by as many as 17 points in the first half, suddenly found their lead cut to six as a resurgent Cornell (1–1, 0–1) found its stride offensively. Cornell’s Grant Gellatly broke through a porous Yale defense and ran for a 30-yard score to pull the Big Red within a touchdown. When Yale lined up to receive the kickoff with the score 23–17, one of the team’s trademark second-half meltdowns from last season seemed all too possible.
But running back Deon Randall ’14 returned that kickoff 49 yards, quarterback Patrick Witt ’12 dove across the goal line on a one-yard touchdown sneak nine plays later and the Elis went on to score once more as they put away the Big Red, 37–17, for good.
“It speaks to the character of this offense that we’re able to respond like that,” Witt said. “You don’t want the other team to come within seven points before you finally wake up, but that worked for us today.”
The day could hardly have started on a worse note for Yale, as Cornell’s Rashad Campbell ran the opening kickoff back for a touchdown — almost. A flag on the play brought the ball back into Cornell territory and safety Nick Okano ’14 made his first career interception four plays later.
Witt, starting off at his own 43, quickly made the Big Red pay for that turnover, lofting a pass to wide receiver Allen Harris ’13 in the corner of the end zone. Harris, who had eight catches, a touchdown and a team-high 107 receiving yards, was Witt’s go–to target of the day.
Harris benefited from a Cornell defensive game plan that focused its energy on standout Yale receiver Chris Smith ’13. The Big Red kept two men on Smith throughout the first half, leaving Harris in one-on-one coverage with room to make plays.
But Yale’s strong passing attack continued even when Smith left with a pulled hamstring midway through the game.
Smith’s absence left a place on the field for wide receiver Cameron Sandquist ’14, who quickly went about doing what he does best: scoring. The diminutive, 172-pound receiver, two of whose three catches as a freshman went for six points, caught his first two passes of the season Saturday. One went for a touchdown.
That scoring pass came from Witt, who completed 24 passes of 33 attempts, with two touchdowns and 246 passing yards, pushing him past the 4,000-yard career mark. He is just the fifth player in Yale history to reach that milestone. But the Rhodes scholar candidate played down his achievement.
“The important stat to me right now is that we’re 2–0,” he said.
The Cornell offense struggled in the first half against a strong Eli defensive effort. Quarterback Jeff Mathews was heavily pressured by an aggressive defensive line and had to settle for short completions to his receivers. The Big Red’s running game did little to help its beleaguered signal caller, gaining only 42 yards on the ground before halftime.
But Cornell would not go quietly. On the team’s first drive of the third quarter, Mathews connected with Kurt Ondash and Luke Tasker for two big throws that put the Big Red in Yale territory. A few minutes later, Tasker shook off several Blue and White defenders and walked into the end zone to cut the Elis’ lead to seven.
After a botched Big Red onside kick on the ensuing kick-off, Witt once again took advantage of favorable field position and found Sandquist for his second touchdown pass of the day. The Bulldogs led by 23–10 after the extra point attempt by Philippe Panico ’13 was blocked.
Mathews responded by bringing the Big Red from their own 18–yard line to the Yale 30 in just two plays, setting up Gellatly’s late third quarter touchdown run.
“We didn’t look that great in the third quarter,” safety Geoff Dunham ’12 said. “[Cornell] did a good job of spreading the defense.”
But that would be the last time Cornell put up any points on the scoreboard.
Alex Thomas ’12, held to just seven yards on the ground in the first half, sped past the Cornell defense for an electrifying 58–yard scoring run. Thomas, who could not quite match the 124 rushing yards he put up last year against Cornell, ended the day with 84 rushing yards and averaged 10.5 yards per carry.
Linebacker Will McHale ’13, who was limited to non-contact practice this week due to post-concussion symptoms, delivered the final nail in the coffin on the next drive. After defensive end Allen Davis ’13 stripped the ball from Gellatly, McHale quickly recovered the fumble to end Cornell’s comeback hopes.
“It’s no fun to practice with a red jersey on,” McHale said. “[It was] nice to get it off and knock some heads today.”
The Bulldogs will travel to Bethlehem, Pa. next Saturday to take on the Lehigh Mountain Hawks. A win would give the team its first 3–0 start since 2007.