Many games can’t be diluted to single play. They are usually an amalgamation of plays and decisions, not one moment that determines who walks off the field a winner and who trots off the loser.
But not every game. Penn’s 21-20 victory over Cornell on Saturday went down to a two-point conversion on the final drive of the game.
Cornell had a chance to tie or take the lead with 50 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter. On third down from the 10-yard line, junior quarterback Richie Kenney hit junior wide receiver Phazione McClurge for a touchdown.
Then, Cornell decided to go for a two-point conversion and the victory.
It didn’t happen. Kenney’s pass attempt was deflected by Penn defensive back freshman Kendren Smith, and the Quakers secured the victory.
“After that play I must have hugged him for thirty seconds,” senior defensive lineman Prince Emeli said of Smith. “I remember in our walk-through I was on him telling him he had to make plays. To see it come to fruition on the last play of the game, the most important play, it’s just all love. I love seeing young guys step up."
After Penn’s fourth consecutive scoreless first quarter, the Quakers (4-4, 2-3 Ivy League) were able to break through a solid Cornell defense. Sophomore wide receiver Rory Starkey broke free across the middle and, with a defender on his back, caught a 12-yard touchdown pass for a 7-0 lead.
That was all the scoring the Quakers generated in the first half.
Saturday’s game also featured the return of Penn running back Karekin Brooks. After Brooks missed last weekend’s game with a lower-body injury, Penn head coach Ray Priore wasn’t afraid to go to his star back early and often. Brooks carried the ball nine times in the first quarter. But he wasn’t breaking off his usual gains, ending the quarter with just 18 yards. Brooks finished the game with 15 carries for 45 yards.
“We have great respect for him,” Cornell head coach David Archer said of Brooks. “He became the focal point of the game plan. We thought if we could force the other guys to beat us we would have a pretty good shot.”
Cornell (2-6, 1-4) entered the game with one of the best defenses in the FCS, holding teams to an average of 22.5 points per game. Penn’s offense finished the first half with just 84 yards.
Trailing 14-7, the Quakers got a spark from junior backup quarterback Ryan Glover, who replaced starter Nick Robinson at the start of the third quarter. On his first drive in the third quarter, Glover rolled to his right and hit senior wide receiver Kolton Huber for a 40-yard touchdown pass to even the score.
“It feels amazing,” Glover said. “You are practicing and preparing just for that moment that you will eventually get in. When you finally get in and that happens, it’s awesome.”
Penn took the lead in the fourth quarter when Glover tossed a lateral to fellow backup quarterback Owen Goldsberry, who then hit wide receiver Eric Markes for an 80-yard touchdown pass and a 21-14 lead.
It turned out to be a lead they would hold by the thinnest of margins.