SUNY Cortland senior defensive back Carson Lassiter simply scoffed at the notion of the Cortaca Jug always being referred to as “The Biggest Little Game in the Nation.”
“This is the biggest game,” insisted the Red Dragons’ leading tackler on defense, Lassiter elevating the game’s status while speaking before media types about these fall football encounters against Ithaca College that more often than not transform into memorable occasions.
Of course, the talented Mr. Lassiter is a bit biased heading into the 58th annual Cortaca contest pitting Central New York rivals — neighbors separated by 20 miles of rolling hills who do battle over some precious porcelain milk jugs — that resumes at noon Saturday at the SUNY Cortland Stadium Complex.
Ithaca (5-4 this season) leads the Cortaca Jug series 34-23, but Cortland (4-5) has captured the last six meetings. And with that stretch of success another notion had to be put to rest, that this recent Red Dragon run of victories has somehow made the rivalry a bit passé.
“Someone mentioned about do you think the rivalry is diminished at all, and I said no way,” said Ithaca starting quarterback Wolfgang Shafer.
“You look at the last six contests, if you go back and watch those games, if anything it’s strengthened the rivalry,” he added. “Obviously, we’d like to be on the other end of a couple of those, but I think it’s strengthened the rivalry and made it more exciting.”
Cortland head coach Dan MacNeill was quick to point out in the last 19 Cortaca Jug games, 14 have been settled by a touchdown or less.
“The only thing that could diminish this rivalry is the threat of its existence,” said MacNeill. “And so it’s incumbent on everyone who attends this thing to honor this thing… honor and enjoy.”
Sure Cortland has enjoyed this current six-game Cortaca Jug win streak, but it has been anything but easy.
— In 2010, Cortland won at home 20-17, Justin Autera rushing for 232 yards and two touchdowns as the Red Dragons rallied from a 17-3 deficit.
— In 2011, Cortland had its lone breather with a rare 27-3 romp at Butterfield Stadium in Ithaca.
— In 2012, Cortland hung on for a 16-10 win by stuffing a fourth down Bombers run from the 1-yard line on the game’s final snap.
— In 2013, Cortland prevailed 28-24 when wide receiver John Babin make a remarkable catch of a 41-yard touchdown pass with 1:08 left in Ithaca.
— In 2014, Cortland scored a stunning 23-20 win on the final play by turning a disastrous field goal attempt — hoping to send the game into overtime — into a game-winning touchdown pass caught by Jon Mannix from kick holder Luke Hinton.
— In 2015, Cortland never trailed but had to get a late stop defensively near midfield before coming up 11-8 winners at Ithaca.
So these games have been a coin flip pretty much, though Ithaca senior defensive lineman Rob Barbieri points out of his three previous losses to Cortland: “That’s true, but you have to put some emphasis on us there. That’s just not finishing football games. That’s something we’re stressing for this Saturday.”
Handling the excitement of the moment before an expected energetic throng of blue vs. red clad fans is crucial to having success in this game.
“It’s going to be Cortaca, so the atmosphere is going to be crazy. So we have to make sure we stay composed and poised in that situation and go out and execute,” says Cortland captain Lassiter.
“I’m just making sure all the young guys understand that it’s going to be a hectic atmosphere and that they need to stay calm, cool and collected on every play,” he added. “You have to just make sure they don’t get caught up in the moment and make sure they’re doing their job and making sure their job is done securely enough that we can stop the offense from momentum drives.”
Cortland’s defense has struggled at times this season, while Ithaca has posted two shutouts including last week’s 7-0 win at home over Buffalo State. Junior linebacker Dan Loizos has a team-high 94 tackles and sophomore linebacker Pat Minogue four sacks for the Bombers.
Cortland’s offense has used five different quarterbacks this season, sophomore Brett Segala getting a second straight start after throwing for four scores in a 42-20 win over Morrisville State two weekends ago. Ithaca’s Shafer has thrown for 1,637 yards and 15 touchdowns, while running back Tristian Brown has 526 rushing yards and four touchdowns.
But nothing is certain about this game, though Ithaca will be sky-high as Mike Welch will be retiring after 23 seasons as the head coach at his alma mater (see separate story). That’s why Ithaca quarterback Shafer calls recent games with Cortland “crazy” affairs, especially the madcap conclusion to the 2014 contest.
“That’s why we get up on Saturday morning and come to Cortland to play the game, because you don’t know what will happen,” he said.
For those without tickets to the sold-out game, Jim Forshee’s television crew at SUNY Cortland will airing the game live on Time Warner Channel 325 locally.
A THIRD JUG: Cortland team captain Tom Decker and Ithaca team captain Dick Carmean purchased the original Cortaca Jug at a yard sale in 1959, and when scores painted on jug ran out of space a second jug was purchased locally in the mid-1980s.
Now that second jug has also been filled up with scores, so a third jug has been provided courtesy of SUNY Cortland ceramic professor Jeremiah Donovan’s students. The newest jug was presented during Wednesday’s Cortaca Jug press conference.
Lucas Quinn, an 11-year-old student from Homer and son of former Cortland assistant Pat Quinn and wife Julie, is Cortland’s honorary captain and helped present the newest piece of pottery. Lucas has just returned from undergoing a medical procedure in Boston and was called “a warrior” by Coach MacNeill.
BOMBERS RELOCATE: Last year was the first time Cortland and Ithaca played as cohorts in the same league, as the Red Dragons exited the New Jersey Athletic Conference to join the Empire 8 Conference. Beating Ithaca in the regular season finale a year ago gave the Red Dragons a share of the title and a spot in the NCAA Division III playoffs.
But this will be the second and final Cortaca Game as conference buddies, as Ithaca is moving on to the Liberty League starting in 2017. The two schools will still continue their rivalry that dates back to the fall of 1948.
REFRESHING BYE: For the second straight year the Red Dragons head into the Cortaca Jug off a bye week in the schedule, being able to rest up and ready themselves for the Ithaca challenge.
“It’s hard to gauge, but it was the right atmosphere,” said Coach MacNeill of the Cortland respite and practice time. “It was the right work, no giddiness. They just keep emerging over adversity and I like it.”
Players nursing injuries like senior wide receiver Mannix appreciated the break.
“I got a little more healthy, I think everyone did,” said the school’s all-time receiving leader. “Everyone was able to take a couple of days off and everyone else got to practice a little more. We just work on reps and now everyone is healthy this week. Everyone is back to full go.”
Lassiter points out Cortland refers to “bye” as just another opponent.
“We practice hard and make sure we learn our assignments and come up with a great defensive scheme,” he said. “So I’d say we beat the bye and are ready to move on to Cortaca.”