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November 16, 2009

 

Dragons turned back, Bombers keep the Jug

Football

Bob Ellis/staff photographer
Senior Wayne Wheeler holds his head in his hands as he joins subdued SUNY Cortland teammates after losing the Cortaca Jug game to Ithaca College Saturday 23-20.

By ALAN BUTLER
Sports Editor

ITHACA — Though there were 95 yards to travel, with no time-outs and just a minute and nine ticks remaining on the Butterfield Stadium scoreboard clock, SUNY Cortland quarterback Alex Smith welcomed being in this perilous position.
“It’s where you want to be,” said graduate student Smith of getting the last-gasp chance to add a chapter to Cortaca Jug football lore with a dramatic drive against the clock and an Ithaca College team determined to protect a three-point lead.
This daunting task proved too much to overcome on Saturday afternoon, however.
There would be no last-second heroics by the Red Dragons, no storybook ending for the visitors in a 23-20 loss to Ithaca in the 51st annual Cortaca Jug contest that sold tickets to 9,700 enthusiastic patrons.
Though an unsportsmanlike penalty flag against the Bombers handed Cortland 15 yards of precious real estate, on the very next snap Smith’s pass over the middle into a crowd of defenders was picked off by Ithaca backup safety Kevin Cline — a sophomore pressed into duty when junior David Ahonen had his bell rung earlier in the contest. The first theft of Cline’s collegiate career came with 55 seconds to go and put an end to this regular season finale that left both upstate rivals with matching 7-3 records.
“They just knew what was coming,” said Smith of the fourth turnover suffered by the Red Dragons, mistakes that helped Ithaca keep possession of the Cortaca Jugs for a third consecutive season. “There was really no option at that point, though I probably should have just thrown it away.”
Smith had thrown for 208 yards and three touchdowns before that final peg, including end zone completions to senior wideouts Wayne Wheeler and Eric Hajnos in a frantic fourth quarter featuring three TDs within a span of four and a half minutes.
The Red Dragons’ final possession from the 5-yard line came after they failed on-sides kick attempt with 3:06 left to play and then held IC on downs and forced a punt. That’s when Ithaca sophomore Mike Conti came up with a great lunging effort to keep Andrew Rogowski’s punt from bouncing into the end zone.
That was among some huge special team work that favored the Bombers all day. That fit in with a 48-yard Dan Ruffrage second quarter punt return, a 40-yard Jake Fietkiwicz kickoff return later in that same stanza and a 25-yard Ruffrage punt return in the third quarter that all led to the field goals booted by Rogowski.
THOSE FIELD GOALS, sandwiched between two touchdown runs by junior tailback Dan Ruggiero who was kept busy lugging the ball 35 times for 109 yards, boosted the Bombers.
“We have been really good at that historically, but this season we’ve seemed to kill ourselves with penalties or a missed block or two,” said Ithaca coach Mike Welch of returning kicks. “Our kids really work at it. It was really good to see that as a factor in our last two games. Against Alfred (a 31-10 win the previous weekend) it was good, too. These last two games we lit it up.”
“Having those kick returns against us is atypical, and obviously dropping the ball that way, you can’t do that,” said Cortland head coach Dan MacNeill of the return yardage and turnovers that canceled out Cortland’s 308-268 edge in total yards.
Cortland’s defense kept this game from getting out of hand early, the Red Dragons fortunate to be down just 13-6 at the break as field position favored the Bombers. Linebacker Cody Allen led the way with 10 tackles, with senior defensive end Evan Wyler in on nine tackles.
“That definitely frustrates you,” said Ithaca’s Ruggiero of having to settle for two second quarter field goals. “When you cross the 50 you expect to score, and then when you cross the 20 you really expect to score.”
Helped by an early face mask penalty, Ithaca did wind up in the end zone with a 71-yard opening drive and scored on a Ruggiero 1-yard plunge to lead 7-0. The Red Dragons tried to answer right back as three plays — including a 30-yard pass reception by tight end Brian Haber — reached the Ithaca 27. That’s when a short, underthrown Smith sideline pass on the run was picked off by cornerback Conti.
Cortland was destined to trail throughout after that miscue.
Even Ithaca’s lone turnover early in the second quarter turned out well for the home side, as Red Dragon linebacker Will Schroeder picked off a Brian Grastorf pass and returned it to the IC 26 only to have the ball wrestled from his possession and back into the Bombers hands.
Down 10-0, Cortland conducted a 61-yard drive capped by Smith hitting Wheeler in the corner of the end zone with a perfectly placed 23-yard pass, though the PAT was blocked. Behind Fietkiewicz’s kickoff return, IC used up almost all of the final 4:28 before another Rogowski field goal upped the lead with 13-6 with 26 seconds left in the half. His third field goal, a 39-yarder, made it 16-6 late in the third quarter.
BUT THIS IS the Cortaca Jug, where no lead is safe. Or as Ithaca’s Welch noted: “This was uncharacteristic of our typical games, but not uncharacteristic of the Cortaca Jug. Things happen.”
What followed was a TD tradeoff.
— Smith directed the Red Dragons 69 yards in nine plays, hitting Wheeler on a post-pattern for a 25-yard touchdown pass play. He tried to hook up with Wheeler again on a two-point PAT, which failed leaving Cortland down 16-12 with 6:27 left.
— Ithaca converted a 17-yard third down Grastorf to wideout Thomas Vossler pass, had tight end Matt Crandall turn a short sideline completion into a tackle-breaking 37-yard excursion to the Red Dragon 10 and had back-to-back Ruggiero runs end up in the end zone for a 23-12 lead with 3:06 left.
“When it came down to it, it was just football,” said Ithaca’s Vossler, his big third down reception among his six receptions. “We had to step up and make a play and that’s what we did.”
— Cortland was back in the end zone three plays later, a Joe Aston 48-yard kickoff return followed by a nifty Hajnos sideline catch of a 38-yard Smith bomb to set up the visitors at the two. Cortland did have to use a precious time-out when tailback Dom Sair was stuffed on first down, Smith then finding Hajnos for touchdown and two-point conversion passes. The IC lead was 23-20 with 3:06 left.
“Having to take that timeout kind of hurt me,” said Coach MacNeill. “I think we would have kicked it deep instead of putting pressure on that on-side kick, but we flat-out didn’t get that touchdown on the run and we can’t let the clock just tick down.”
Cortland used its final two time-outs to get the ball back, only to have that final chance denied by the Cline pick-off.