The final seconds were ticking away at the conclusion the 58th annual Cortaca Jug game when a joyous throng of SUNY Cortland football fans produced this cheerful chant.
“Seven-peat, seven-peat, seven-peat,” was the boisterous refrain that sounded so sweet to those Red Dragon supporters on this clear, crisp Saturday afternoon.
Cortland was finishing off a 28-16 victory over arch rival Ithaca College to close out the regular season before some 10,000 paying customers at the Stadium Complex, and the hosts had a reason to exalt.
A determined and previously maligned Red Dragons defense had produced eight quarterback sacks, while sophomore Brett Segala — making just his second collegiate start at quarterback — tossed four touchdown passes to four different receivers.
That kept the three brown porcelain Cortaca Jugs that these two proud football programs fight over in Cortland’s possession, the Red Dragons having not lost to Bombers in the “Biggest Little Game in the Nation” now since the autumn of 2009.
“That was unreal,” said exuberant senior defensive end Tom Hagan, a team captain who took part in three of those sacks leading a defense that enabled Cortland to enjoy a 473-256 edge in total yards on the day.
“As a d-line, we just got after them. They couldn’t block us up front. I think everyone on our d-line might have gotten a sack today,” added Hagan. “It was just a heck of a performance all-around on the defense. And the offense putting up four touchdowns, you can’t ask for anything better right now.”
“They’re starting to add up, aren’t they. It’s kind of neat,” said smiling Cortland head coach Dan MacNeill of this seven-game Cortaca win streak, his squad finishing 3-5 in the Empire 8 Conference while improving to 5-5 overall.
“You must make sure the kids don’t get arrogant over it, because we’ve never been in this position before,” the coach added, as Ithaca still has a 34-24 edge in Cortaca Jug games and leads the overall series 39-33-2 despite its recent slump. “So we’ll enjoy this. I think they handled it right and I have to make sure the next group handles in right, because we’ve owned those jugs for seven years and it’s been pretty neat.”
Cortland never trailed in spoiling a potential farewell party for Mike Welch, who is retiring after over 40 years in the college coaching business — the last 23 as the head coach at his beloved Ithaca alma mater.
Ithaca also ended up 5-5 overall, with a 4-4 record in the Empire 8 standings. All five losses suffered by the Bombers were road games.
And it took the Bombers a while to get going in this away game, Cortland’s defense allowing just one first down in Ithaca’s opening four possessions.
Despite their early domination, the Red Dragons only had a 25-yard Segala touchdown pass that senior wide receiver Jon Mannix pulled down in the back of the end zone to show for it. That success arrived after Ithaca shanked a 13-yard punt.
Three other early scoring drives went scoreless, an interception by Ithaca defensive back Jordan Schemm and a missed Cortland field goal keeping this a 7-0 game.
The Red Dragons went up 14-0 in the second quarter with an 88-yard drive that took 14 plays and needed four conversions on third down – Cortland 12-of-18 converting third downs on the day and to go along with 2-for-2 success on fourth-down pick-ups.
A 28-yard Segala pass over the middle that found senior tight end Josh Riley open got Cortland to the Ithaca 3-yard line, where on the next play Segala’s play fake led to senior wideout Anthony Pintabona emerging free in the end zone to put Cortland up 14-0.
When Ithaca responded with the first of two remarkable touchdown catches by dangerous freshman Will Gladney, pulling in a lofted 14-yard toss from senior quarterback Wolfgang Shafer, Ithaca was within 14-6 — with Hagan blocking the point-after kick.
With just 1:28 left in the half and after a penalty on the ensuing kickoff pushed the ball back to the 10-yard line, Cortland put together another lengthy scoring drive. The big play was a sideline pass to Mannix that the Bombers nearly picked off, but that miss enabled the school’s all-time receiving leader to sprint 45 yards to the Ithaca 29.
After a Mannix 12-yard catch, Riley was on the receiving end of a 17-yard touchdown pass from Segala with 22 seconds to spare and Cortland carried a 21-6 lead into the locker room.
Ah, but this is the Cortaca Jug, where no lead is a safe lead.
“That’s kind of who we are. We came out fighting and I think we turned the tide,” said Coach Welch of the 10 unanswered IC third quarter points that trimmed the Cortland advantage to five points. “But then Cortland is a good football team. They answered.”
Two plays into the third quarter, an under-thrown Segala pass was picked off by safety Mike Miller, though Mannix thought he had stolen the ball back before hitting the turf.
“He caught it and I took it from him. I thought it was before he hit the ground, but the ref said it wasn’t,” said Mannix of the play. “Right now that’s hindsight. It didn’t matter. We won the game.”
But Ithaca turned that theft into points, Gladney catching a 27-yard pass over the middle and then pulling in Shafer’s 11-yard touchdown toss on a third down snap. The Bombers then had another long drive capped by a 25-yard Ellis field goal, and the visitors were within 21-16 with 5:44 left in the third quarter.
More Cortland disaster arrived after reaching the IC 25. A play after a potential touchdown pass was dropped, Segala was smacked getting off a pass that drifted into the arms of Ithaca linebacker Kenny Bradley.
Coach MacNeill was not surprised to see how team respond to this sudden adversity, to some squandered scoring chances. “That’s their make-up. They had to do that all year and there was never any kind of panic on the field,” he said.
After a 43-yard field Cortland goal attempt fell short to start the fourth quarter, Cortland got the ball right back and traveled 68 yards for the clinching touchdown. Pintabona made up for an earlier drop by catching a 40-yard crossing pass to put Cortland at the Ithaca 3-yard line. Helped out by a pass interference call, Segala then hooked up with senior wideout Chris Osterman for a 4-yard TD toss with 4:22 left to play.
Ithaca managed one more first down before Shafer was sacked on four consecutive pass plays. Sophomore defensive lineman Tanner Olson, freshman defensive end Dylan Ferrari and sophomore defensive end Dan Appley made the first three stops. Hagan teamed up with linebacker Mark DeLuise for the fourth down sack that finished off the Bombers — the last of a team-high 12 tackles for sophomore DeLuise.
And this Cortland team that opened 2-0, then went 1-5 over a six-game stretch after starting quarterback Steven Ferreira broke an ankle, could finally celebrate a second straight victory.
“It speaks an awful lot to the resiliency of this group, when the complexion of a team changes that much,” said Coach MacNeill. “It’s always better to stay healthy, but you know that the game teaches you so many lessons of perseverance. And this it what class is all about. This is what this team is all about.”