In what seemed like an improbable ending, the Ithaca College football team’s comeback fell short in the last six minutes, and for the sixth straight year, the Bombers fell to rival SUNY Cortland in the 57th annual Cortaca Jug game by a final score of 11–8 at Butterfield Stadium.
After plenty of missed opportunities, the Blue and Gold failed to score four times in Cortland’s territory and missed two field goals attempts. The Red Dragons won an automatic bid to the NCAA Division III Tournament and their first Empire 8 Conference title in their inaugural season.
Cortland head coach Dan MacNeill said he was proud of the way his defense played and happy for his team for making the playoffs.
“That’s what happens with the field anyway,” MacNeill said. “They don’t have as much room to move. The end lines are kind of a defender for us. You can just sit right on their routes and kind of slow them down.”
The first half saw long drives end up in few points for the South Hill squad. On Nov. 11, it was announced that junior quarterback Wolfgang Shafer would start for the Bombers after being injured Oct. 31 against St. John Fisher College.
For the majority of the first half, Shafer looked like a seasoned veteran. He went 11–16 for 107 yards, the most yards he has had in a game in over a month. However, it was a late drive in the second quarter that saw the Bombers in field goal range before Shafer threw his 13th interception of 2015 to Cortland cornerback Isaac Hicks.
Unlike previous weeks, the rushing game for the Bombers performed well. As a team, they tallied 51 yards in the first half on the ground, but Cortland rushed for 71 yards. However, a loss of 40 yards in the second half resulted in 11 total rushing yards on the day.
One of the keys to the game was Red Dragons’ quarterback Steven Ferreira. He came into the game second in passing yards and the best in quarterback efficiency in the Empire 8. In the first half, he went 8–11 for 102 yards. He was clutch on third downs, picking up three through the air.
The Bombers were able to move the ball down the field for a total of 141 yards, something that the team has struggled with in the past four games. Sophomore running back Tristan Brown was able to convert on some powerful runs down the field and convert on third downs.
However, the Bombers had the best chance to score when they failed to convert on a 22-yard field goal from senior kicker Max Rottenecker. The missed field goal was just Rottenecker’s 10th missed field goal of the season. On the assuming possession, the Red Dragons connected on a 29-yard field goal from junior Shane Cronin to put Cortland up 3–0.
The only other score of the first half was with one minute to go when Ferreira hit sophomore wideout Jake Smith for a 14-yard touchdown pass. The Dragons led the Bombers 9–0 heading into halftime.
The second half was a different story, controlled mostly by the Bombers’ offense. However, they were only able to find the end zone once.
Cortland received the ball to open the second half, and on the second play from the line of scrimmage, Ferreira hit junior running back Jon Mannix on a big 34-yard conversion to set the Dragons up the rest of the drive. The Bombers’ defense stepped up and stopped Cortland to halt the drive.
With 49 seconds remaining in the third quarter, senior punter Brandon Steff came on to punt, but the ball sailed over his head into the end zone for a safety, putting the Dragons ahead 11–0.
Once the fourth quarter began, the Blue and Gold’s offense woke up, starting with a 30-yard catch and run to junior wideout Myles LaFrance. The Bombers were able to get in field goal range, but Rottenecker ultimately missed a 41–yarder, keeping the Blue and Gold off of the board.
On the next drive, LaFrance was hit with a 14-yard catch to set the Bombers up with good field position. Shafer found senior wide receiver Nick Vallo in the end zone for a 3-yard touchdown pass, putting the Bombers on the board. The offense remained on the field to go for two and converted when Shafer lofted the ball in the back of the end zone to LaFrance. The Bombers trailed the Red Dragons 11–8 with just under five minutes remaining.
After picking up a first down, Cortland linebacker Matt Ambrose sacked Shafer for an 8-yard loss, leaving the team with a third and 18 play coming up and killing the momentum the Bombers had.
Shafer found sophomore wide receiver Jared Bauer to pick up 15 yards to leave a manageable 4th and 3. Shafer then threw wide to Vallo, and the Bombers came up on the short end of the stick. In the last game of the season, Shafer went 28–41 for 300 yards with one touchdown and one interception.
Senior defensive back Malik Morris said although the loss was disappointing, he is going to miss playing on the team even more after graduating.
“I wasn’t even pissed that we lost,” Morris said. “I’m just pissed that I can’t be with the team anymore … It was a great game. All credit to Cortland. I’m going to miss it all.”
Head coach Mike Welch said it was the same mistakes that led to the Bombers’ loss.
“Things that have been happening the last few weeks showed up again today,” Welch said. “We didn’t take care of the opportunities that we had.”
Before the game, the teams honored one of the co-founders of the original Cortaca Jug, Tom Decker ’64, died Nov. 11 at his home in North Carolina. The original jug just was a $2 purchase at a garage sale in Homer, New York way back in 1959. This year’s edition of the Cortaca Jug will be the last score on the second jug.
The Bombers’ football team ends its season with a disappointing 4–6 record. It’s just the team’s second losing season in the last 40 years.
Andrew Sullivan contributed reporting to this article.