November 18, 2013
Dragons make it four in a row
Late TD grab by Babin knocks off Ithaca 28-24
Joe McIntyre/staff photographer
SUNY Cortland’s John Babin (12) brings down the game winning touch down pass late in the fourth quarter against Ithaca College Saturday at Butterfield Stadium. Visiting Cortland pulled out a 28-24 victory.
ITHACA — As SUNY Cortland players scrambled to pose for a team picture with the Butterfield Stadium scoreboard looming in the background, their chant resounded on this ideal blue-skied Saturday afternoon on the South Hill in Ithaca.
“Four-peat, four-peat, four-peat,” were the bellowed words coming from the joyous Red Dragons, who had achieved the unprecedented football feat of knocking off upstate rival Ithaca College for a fourth consecutive season to keep possession of their precious Cortaca Jugs.
As the scoreboard still reflected, Cortland had pulled off a 28-24 upset before a packed house of witnesses, as “The Biggest Little Game in the Nation” added yet another frantic finish to an already intense and memorable series.
This 55th edition of the Cortaca Jug came down to wondrous junior wide receiver John Babin reaching over an Ithaca defender to snatch away a deep sideline throw delivered by quarterback Tyler Hughes with just 1:08 left to play, Babin prancing into the end zone with his second TD catch of the day on a play that covered 41 yards.
“It was probably the best feeling ever,” said Babin of his eighth and most important grab of the contest. “Hughes just gave me an opportunity to make a play. It was one-on-one coverage, and luckily I went up there and got it to get the win.”
Pulling out close games has been a knack for the resilient Bombers, however, while capturing an Empire 8 Conference regular season title and winning eight of nine games prior to facing Cortland to conclude the regular season.
After Babin’s go-ahead grab, Ithaca crossed midfield in the final minute. Facing 2nd-and-10 from the Cortland 49, quarterback Tom Dempsey completed a pass to wide receiver Vito Buffoli — who had already thrown for one touchdown on a trick play and caught another scoring pass — that could have made things even more tense in the waning seconds.
That’s when sophomore defensive end Tom Hagan forced a fumble that the Red Dragons recovered with 26 seconds left, jarring the ball loose from Buffoli’s grip.
There would be no Ithaca comeback on this occasion.
“I turned around and just ran as fast as I could and put my head straight onto the ball and it popped out,” said Hagan of the last of his nine tackles. “I didn’t even know what happened until I got up and everyone was screaming.”
That was the third costly second half turnover suffered by the hosts, Ithaca having rallied back from three deficits on the day before a fourth comeback was denied.
AFTER BEING UNABLE to successfully defend its New Jersey Athletic Conference regular season title this season, beating the Bombers was a nifty consolation prize as Cortland closes the regular season 6-4. The Red Dragons will now face Alfred in an ECAC North Central Bowl contest this coming Saturday, a 1 p.m. start in Alfred.
Ithaca (8-2) will move on to the NCAA Division III tournament having earned an automatic berth as Empire 8 champs. The Bombers will host Framingham State — the same school Cortland nipped 20-19 in last year’s NCAAs — in a first round contest this coming Saturday at noon. That will take a little bit of the sting away from being unable to get the Cortaca Jugs back for a senior class that finished 0-4 against Cortland.
“This was the one to win. We wanted this one, but it’s over,” said Ithaca head coach Mike Welch. “We get a chance to play another game, so that’s great.”
Though the win made Corrtland eligible for a postseason ECAC bowl game, head coach Dan MacNeill said in the glow of victory: “This is the kind of thing you want to head into your off-season on.”
On three occasions MacNeill’s side had taken touchdown leads, only to see Ithaca pull even on each occasion.
After Cortland went ahead 7-0 when junior running back Dylan Peebles capped an 81-yard drive with a six-yard touchdown run, the Red Dragons enabled Ithaca to pull even after fumbling away a punt on the first play of the second quarter. Set up at the Cortland 37, Buffoli took the ball on a reverse and then launched a TD toss to open teammate Joel Lynch.
A 62-yard scoring drive put Cortland back up 14-7 with 5:50 left in the half, Hughes throwing a 12-yard strike to freshman wide receiver Joel Nunez. Ithaca followed with a 75-yard march that included a 4th-and-9 conversion, Dempsey then throwing a 3-yard touchdown pass to Buffoli with 15 seconds left before intermission.
THAT’S WHEN CORTLAND avoided a disastrous finish to the opening half.
After Troy Beddoe returned a short kickoff to the Cortland 37, the Red Dragons threw a complete pass to tight end Josh Riley that the freshman fumbled away. Given that chance to go for the end zone from the Cortland 47, Dempsey bought extra time in the pocket and sent a arching pass in the end zone that Lynch appeared to haul in. Cortland defensive back Ke’shaun Stallworth was able to poke the ball free as the Bomber wide receiver landed in the end zone, and the ‘Hail Mary’ was ruled incomplete.
“I was disappointed. I thought they caught the ball and it would have been a tremendous downer,” said Cortland’s MacNeill, unhappy with how his side let a play like that happen.
When asked if the incomplete call was correct, Ithaca’s Coach Welch said: “I think so. The new rule, and people don’t understand it, is once you hit the ground you have to maintain control of it. If it bobbles then it’s not a catch, and from what I understand that’s what happened.”
Each team scored in the third quarter, starting on the fourth play when Babin turned another great sideline grab into a 63-yard scoring play. With 1:31 to go in the quarter Lynch grabbed a six-yard TD pass from Dempsey on a drive that begin with frosh running back Evan Skea breaking off a 45-yard run to the Cortland 11.
In between those scores came the first crucial Ithaca turnover in the second half, as Cortland’s junior safety Andrew Tolosi picked off a Dempsey pass in the corner of the end zone at the end of a long IC drive.
ALL TIED AT 21-21, there was more fourth quarter drama to come starting when dependable Cortland senior Justin Autera fumbled a punt for the second time to set up the Bombers at the Red Dragons’ 20-yard line. The defense held, however, and Ithaca’s Garrett Nicholson put the home side ahead for the first time with a 32-yard field goal.
Cortland then had to punt the ball away, and Ithaca’s Sam Carney nearly went the distance with the return. His 44-yard scamper set Ithaca up at the Cortland 23-yard line with 7:43 left looking for more points.
That’s when sophomore inside linebacker Matt Ambrose, who had a team-high 15 tackles for Cortland, forced a fumble on the next play that Hagan recovered. An exchange of punts then gave Cortland a final possession at its own 25-yard line, with 2:28 left to play.
“I said I wouldn’t want to win this game any other way than with you guys right here, right now,” were the supportive words from quarterback Hughes in the Cortland huddle.
Hughes scrambled out of bounds for eight yard and hit Babin for a seven-yard completion. Another Hughes run picked up eight yards before Peebles broke off tackle to pick up 11 additional yards to the Ithaca 41.
The long touchdown pass to Babin followed, and Cortland was ahead to stay.
“You’ve got to center yourself around a kid who’s so special,” said Coach MacNeill of Babin, whose eight catches covered 174 yards. “Everyone’s going to make it hard on him to catch (balls), but he catches balls and he’s hard to tackle. I mean what a play. I don’t want to be the one who has to tackle him,”
“We had our chances. We had control of the game,” said Ithaca’s Welch. “Just overall it was a hard-fought game and I thought they made more big plays than we did.”
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