November 12, 2012
Goal-line stand saves Red Dragons
Ithaca denied in final seconds of 16-10 loss
Bob Ellis/staff photographer
Phil Bossman (8) and Andrew Tolosi (1) put the initial hit on IC ball carrier Clay Ardoin at the goal line late in the fourth quarter to preserve the Red Dragons’ 16-10 win.
Now those collectors of Cortaca Jug lore can add another stirring chapter to this football saga.
Now the tale can be told and retold of the gallant SUNY Cortland goal-line stand that denied Ithaca College the chance to wrest victory away from the nationally-ranked Red Dragons in the 54th edition of the Cortaca Jug rivalry that once again lived up to its “Biggest Little Game in America” billing.
The visiting Bombers were mere inches away from scoring the go-ahead touchdown in the final seconds of Saturday’s fray, only to have the Red Dragons stuff Ithaca senior tailback Clay Ardoin’s fourth down carry. That provided a dramatic conclusion to a 16-10 Red Dragons’ victory before a vociferous gathering of 7,635 fans crammed into the SUNY Cortland Stadium Complex.
Ardoin had rushed for 159 yards — including a 50-yard touchdown burst that had given the Bombers a 10-0 lead early in the second quarter — prior to his 27th and final collegiate carry that ended up losing a yard.
With sophomore defensive lineman Joe DeLuca getting penetration on the decisive play, Ardoin veered off left tackle. The sturdy 6-foot-2, 216-pound Bomber then ran smack into 165-pound senior safety Phil Bossman. Trying to kick out of Bossman’s grasp, sophomore cornerbacker Andrew Tolosi and freshman linebacker Matt Ambrose were there to finish off the game-saving tackle.
“It’s fourth and one... on the goal-line... game’s on the line.... and there’s no time,” intoned Cortland head coach Dan MacNeill while reliving the moment afterwards.
“I took a timeout to try to get some more time, but I’m going, “Heck, there’s not a lot of time there and this is not going to be good.’” he added. “And as soon as they snapped the ball and I saw those two guys hit that kid, it was like they shook a bees’ nest, man. They were all over him.”
“We all read the play. We knew they were going to run trey,” said the fiery Tolosi of his seventh tackle of the game. “He bounced outside and me and my safety and my linebacker just gang-tackled him. It felt like I was about to have a heart-attack. It was the greatest feeling in my life.”
The win sends Cortland (8-1) into the NCAA Division III playoffs with an eighth straight victory. And for the first time in school history, the Red Dragons have beaten the Bombers (6-4) in three consecutive Cortaca Jug contests.
Ithaca got this late scoring chance because of sophomore Sam Carney’s 38-yard punt return, shoved out of bounds to set up the Bombers a mere 20 yards from the end zone with 2:16 left on the scoreboard clock. Five plays later, including a third down Ardoin run from the 3-yard line that came up just inches short, Ithaca’s last chance was thwarted.
“We were riding high on emotions,” said Ardoin of that final drive. “We had timeouts left, we had the momentum, and they just took it from us.”
BEFORE NEEDING THOSE late defensive heroics, Cortland came up with three field goals from sure-footed Mike DeBole and a go-ahead 9-yard touchdown pass from senior quarterback Chris Rose to senior wideout Mike Humphrey early in the fourth quarter to rally from that 10-0 deficit. Two DeBole field goals made this a 10-6 game at halftime, and Cortland’s defense held Ardoin to just eight rushing yards in the third quarter to set the stage for the comeback.
“We’ve been there before, and that’s good,” said Coach MacNeill, his Red Dragons having come from behind beat top New Jersey Athletic Conference contenders Rowan and Kean prior to facing Ithaca. “The kids understand. We’ve been here before. No one wants to be there, but you’ve been there and there’s no panicking. I like the poise our coaches displayed, and our players.”
A 26-yard punt return by junior Justin Autera got the go-ahead touchdown drive started late in the third quarter, Cortland starting from its own 46-yard line. Thirteen plays later — including tailback Bronson Greene’s 4th-and-1 pickup to the Ithaca 27 — Humphrey adjusted to Rose’s end zone toss to come up with the crucial catch. It was the only touchdown a Cortland offense that came into the game averaging 40 points per game would get against a gritty Ithaca defense.
“I just tell him to throw the ball, but don’t overthrow it,” said Humphrey of Rose’s 19th touchdown toss of the season that put Cortland ahead 13-10. “If he under-throws it I have a chance to catch it, just don’t throw if out of bounds. That’s exactly what he did, and I just made a play.”
Humphrey then played a different role in a fourth quarter drive that led to DeBole’s third field goal of the game — and featured a 36-yard pass reception by sophomore Kordel McInnis on a crucial 3rd-and-3 snap.
Cortland was bogged down on the Ithaca 26, and DeBole was trotted out to try a 43-yard field goal. Except Coach MacNeill called for a fake, which everyone but holder Humphrey knew.
“I didn’t know it was a designated fake. No one told me. So it wasn’t all the way it was suppose to go like,” said Humphrey, who scampered his way for nine yards and a first down at the Ithaca 17.
“I was going to put the ball down. I saw the kicker run the opposite way so I just ran the ball and it worked out,” added Humphrey. “I was suppose to pitch it. I hit the same hole it was designed to go, but I didn’t know we were faking. I was completely unaware.”
“Actually, it looked a little better than then how we practiced it,” said MacNeill of that play. “But it was a winning play. Mike Humphrey, you want the ball in his hands.”
WITH ROSE SACKED on second down, Cortland still had to settle for a 32-yard DeBole field goal and a six-point lead with 4:34 left to play.
Ithaca had to punt the ball away on its next possession, which featured a huge hit by Cortland freshman safety Andre Green breaking up an IC pass over the middle. But Cortland went three-and-out, Carney nearly broke free on the punt return and Ithaca had a chance for a memorable finish.
“We just always come back,” noted Ithaca interim coach Mark McDonough, who has directed the Bombers for the past four weekends after head men Mike Welch had to undergo heart bypass surgery.
“To have the kind of performance we had down the stretch here was a credit to the players and their leadership and their character,” said McDonough, whose team lost a close game at St. John Fisher before knocking off nationally-ranked Salisbury and Hartwick on back-to-back weekends prior to the Cortaca Jug. “Unfortunately, we came up a couple of plays short in two games, but I tell you that I’m proud of the way they competed and played in these last four games.
“Hopefully, we’ll learn a lesson and be a better team from this loss next year,” he added.
Cortland finished with a 287-272 yard edge in this defensive struggle, with Rose completing 26-of-36 throws for 212 yards. And that total included three drops, with nine catches from McInnis and seven by Humphrey.
But the defense — which came up with touchdown interception returns from cornerback Pete Furey and defensive end Vaughn Labor in a 31-17 win at Kean two weekends ago to capture the NJAC regular season title — came through again.
Or as Tolosi summed up: “I tell you what, nothing beats a goal-line stand like that to end a game. It’s the best thing ever.”
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