November 15, 2010
Ithaca’s gift helps Dragons rally to 20-17 victory
Heroic SUNY Cortland running back Justin Autera and stoic Ithaca College head coach Mike Welch both referred to the turning point of these 52nd annual Cortaca Jug football festivities in the same way,
They simply called it “a gift.”
Certainly the special teams gaffe that practically handed struggling SUNY Cortland a third quarter touchdown started the visitor’s demise on an ideal sunny Saturday afternoon, as the Red Dragons used that momentum to turn a 17-3 deficit into a stirring 20-17 victory over Ithaca before a typically boisterous crowd of 10,300 and a Time Warner Cable television audience.
Of course the career-best 232 rushing yards and two touchdowns by elusive tailback Autera — along with a Red Dragons defense that featured interceptions by cornerbacks Joe Lopez and D.J. Romano and stifled the Bombers for most of the second half — also helped wrest away the two Cortaca Jugs that Ithaca has been taking care of for the past three years.
Cortland scored the game’s final 17 points to finish off a 9-1 regular season, Autera scoring the go-ahead TD with 10:49 left to play. The non-league victory also enabled the Red Dragons to win the New Jersey Athletic Conference first place tie-breaker and send Coach Dan MacNeill’s squad into the NCAA Division III playoffs (see separate story) with an automatic berth.
The ‘gift’ was presented with just eight minutes to play in the third quarter at the SUNY Cortland Stadium Complex, when IC punter Andrew Rogowski was detected latching onto a low center snap on one knee at the Bombers’ 3-yard line. That turned the ball over at that spot to the Red Dragons, and when Autera spun into the end zone on the very next snap the Cortland comeback was underway.
“We’re a second half team. We knew we were going to pick it up. We knew we had to win this game,” said sophomore Autera, who rushed for more yards — on 37 carries — than any running back in Cortaca Jug history. “That was a gift, and after that we got the momentum and we just took it from there. Our offense, we knew we had something going.”
This was the first time all season that Ithaca (6-4) had not won a game it led at half-time.
“We won two big games in that kind of fashion, where you come back,” said Coach MacNeill, referring to the late fourth quarter Cortland rally that clipped previously unbeaten Montclair State 10-9 on this same turf two weekends ago. “I mean, those are storybook kind of finishes. Who’s not going to remember this game? What senior is not going to remember this? So it’s a nice, searing memory. Good for us.”
CORTLAND TRAILED 10-3 at the break and then fumbled the ball away on the opening possession of the second half.
Ithaca didn’t waste time taking advantage. Senior quarterback Rob Zappia had plenty of time in the pocket to find tight end Dan Higgins breaking free, lofting a 33-yard touchdown pass that had Higgins bouncing off a couple of tackle attempts before reaching the end zone.
That put the Red Dragons into their 17-3 predicament. But the Ithaca offense would generate just two first downs the rest of the day, one coming on a 15-yard Red Dragon penalty, as the Cortland defense stepped up. And the botched punt led to the Autera touchdown was just the first of three special-team plays that helped the Red Dragons recover.
The second ‘special’ play was a punt by Cortland’s Pete Furey that pinned the Bombers back at their own 5-yard line, where three Bombers runs ended up losing two yards — part of Ithaca’s 19 yards on 26 carries rushing futility on the day.
Cortland got the ball back at the IC 45, got back-to-back 16-yard runs from Autera and scored on a Marc Corrado 32-yard field goal to trim the Bombers’ lead to 17-13 with 12:55 left to play.
The third ‘special’ play came on the ensuing kickoff, when back-up linebacker Chris Bright forced an Ithaca fumble that Cortland’s Joe Aston recovered on the visitor’s 32-yard line. Cortland covered that distance in five plays, a 13-yard run by Autera understudy Dorian Myles to the 1-yard line followed by an Autera leap into the end zone.
Though Ithaca dislodged the ball from Autera’s grasp and headed downfield with the football, the referees correctly ruled the Red Dragon had crossed the goal line before losing the handle and the hosts were ahead for the first and final time.
Ithaca never crossed midfield in its final three possessions, one of those halted when Romano picked off a deep sideline throw by Zappia.
“MISTAKES ARE GOING to kill you, whether it’s offense, defense or special teams,” said Ithaca’s Zappia, who had 222 of his 271 passing yards in the first half including eight passes to senior flanker Thomas Vossler good for 83 yards.
“In any game mistakes will hurt you and we saw that happen today,” he added. “I had a few miscues as far as interceptions, and they took advantage of it and did a good job of that. We pride ourselves on taking care of the football and we didn’t do that 100 percent this week and that came back to hurt us.”
Zappia hurt Cortland with big plays early, as Red Dragons were playing the role of a gracious host handing out first half gifts of their own.
There was the Autera fumble on Cortland’s very first place that gave the Bombers the ball on the Red Dragons’ 27-yard line. Ithaca did not take advantage, missing a field goal attempt.
The two teams then traded long drives.
Ithaca went 80 yards in nine plays to score on a Zappia bootleg from five yards out, that coming on the first place after Zappia hit speedy sophomore Andre Jamison on a 47-yard pass play down the middle.
Cortland went 56 yards on 10 plays, but was stopped into the 10-yard line and settled for a Corrado 26-yard field goal.
In the second quarter, after junior Mike Conti picked off a long third down pass from Cortland quarterback Dan Pitcher, Ithaca was on the verge of taking advantage with a long drive to the hosts’ 10-yard line. That’s when Lopez stepped in front of a sideline throw and nearly went the distance.
“I had a blocker, I can’t remember who it was, but then they caught me from behind,” said Lopez with a shrug of his head. “I’ve got to work on my speed.”
Cortland had to punt the ball away, however, and Ithaca closed the half with a 14-play drive starting from their own 17-yard line. The biggest play in that march was an acrobatic 29-yard third down sideline reception by D.J. Forbragd against two Red Dragon defenders. On the final snap of the half, Rogowski connected on a 29-yard field goal.
A CORTLAND OFFENSE that had only two possessions in the second quarter was much more productive after falling behind 17-3. The time of possession at intermission favored Ithaca 18:05 to 11:55. At the end of the game the time of possession favored Cortland, 33:33 to 26:27.
“In the second half we just had bad field position and didn’t have as many snaps as we did in the first half,” said Coach Welch of Ithaca’s second half woes. “And when we really needed to run it, we couldn’t generate much.”
Running the ball was not a problem for Autera, who was also Cortland’s top receiver with 23 yards on four receptions. “I’m a little exhausted,” said Autera, who was responsible for 255 of Cortland’s 282 total yards of offense.
When asked if he ever carried the ball so many times in a single game before, he said: “I’m not even sure, but our whole offensive line worked their tails off the entire game. I owe them everything. I love those guys to death.”
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