February 7, 2023
Ithaca, NY | 25°F


Four Downs: Bombers prepare for Cortaca Jug

The football team (7–2, 6–2 Empire 8) travels to SUNY Cortland to take on the Red Dragons (4–5, 4–3 New Jersey Athletic Conference) in the 56th Annual Cortaca Jug game at noon on Nov. 15 in Cortland, New York.

End of an Awkward Era

The Red Dragons have played their final game in the New Jersey Athletic Conference. They will join the Empire 8 next season in a move that ensures the stability of the rivalry and also makes scheduling much easier for both teams. For 15 years, Cortland and the Bombers have been in separate conferences while keeping the game scheduled for the final week of the regular season. As a result, both teams have had to begin their conference seasons a week earlier than the rest of the teams in their respective conferences and have had to limit the number of non-conference options by one.

With next year’s matchup set to be an in-conference fixture, both teams will add a non-conference opponent to the schedule. While The Ithacan reported on Sept.10 that the Blue and Gold would initially look toward adding a second Liberty League opponent, Cortland still has good relationships with its former NJAC rivals and is likely to explore scheduling one of them for next season. The regular season schedule for both teams will now be much more streamlined with three weeks for each team to play two non-conference games and schedule a bye week followed by an eight-game conference schedule that concludes with the Cortaca Jug.

A Dragon With No Teeth

While Cortland’s 25.9-points-per-game average is second-best in the NJAC, that figure would be seventh-best in the Empire 8, and their 119.4 rushing yards would be eighth-best. The Red Dragons can get yards through the air with junior quarterback John Grassi throwing for more than 2,100 yards this season, but he only completes just more than 58 percent of his passes. If the Bomber secondary can prevent the big play, something it failed to do in last year’s game giving up two touchdowns of 40 or more yards, then they should be able to contain Grassi and the Red Dragon offense. The Bombers’ task is easier this year with Red Dragons senior wide receiver John Babin out with an injury.

Babin entered the year as a second-team All-American but only played in two games this season. To say his absence has been conspicuous would be an understatement. Last year, the Red Dragons scored 37 touchdowns. This season they have 25. Babin scored 13 touchdowns last year, and the Red Dragons have been unable to get that production from their other wide receivers. Sophomore wide receiver Jon Mannix and junior wide receiver Jack Delahunty have seven touchdowns between them. It would therefore be a surprising and significant indictment of the Bombers’ secondary to let any Red Dragon wide receiver have a performance similar to Babin’s eight-reception, 174-yard performance from last year’s matchup — especially after their superb performance on Nov. 8 against St. John Fisher College.

The Razor-thin Margin for Error

Bombers senior wide receiver Vito Boffoli said he does not think about his game-ending fumble from last year’s game. That fumble halted the Blue and Gold’s hopes of a last-second win and epitomizes the razor-thin margin for error that has existed in these past two games. Then-junior quarterback Tom Dempsey’s interception in the end zone earlier in the game was a 6-point swing that provided the difference in the game. In 2012, the fact that the Red Dragons scored any points off of the game’s lone turnover, a fumble by Bomber running back Clay Ardoin ’13, led to the Red Dragons holding a 6-point lead, forcing the Bombers to go for the touchdown on fourth and goal with under a minute remaining.

The intangibles matter in this situation. The Red Dragons have nothing to lose and will play aggressively on both ends of the ball. The Bombers struggled to cope with an aggressively playing defense in their loss against Buffalo State College on Oct. 11, a game in which turnovers proved decisive. It would be very impressive if the Bombers would be able to handle the competitive Red Dragons and to be in a scenario in which the result of the game would be clear in the final minutes, especially on the road in Cortland. If the Red Dragons keep it close, the onus falls upon the Bombers to not blink. The last two Cortaca Jug games showed what happens when they do.

The Tangible Benefit to Winning Cortaca

While The Ithacan sports columnist Steve Derderian described the feelings that go into winning a rivalry game after years of defeats, the Bombers have more than positive vibes to pursue on Saturday. They need a win to be seriously considered for a home game in next week’s NCAA Tournament. The Blue and Gold are fifth in the most-recent release of the NCAA Regional Rankings. While Delaware Valley College and Widener University will play to decide who gets the Middle Atlantic Conference title and the automatic bid to the playoffs, the loser will be the highest-ranked at-large candidate in the region and probably get a bid to the tournament regardless. Second-ranked Hobart College also looks likely to host a first-round game. With all three of those teams currently undefeated, they are all going to be ahead of the Bombers in the final ranking.

Working off of d3football.com’s projected bracket, the Bombers are going to need the Statesmen to slip up to have any real shot of hosting a first-round game. More importantly, a Cortaca loss would send them toward the bottom of the regional ranking. That weak resume and the fact that Ithaca College is fewer than 500 miles away from both Wesley College and the University of Mount Union means the scenario for a disastrous first-round matchup is very realistic.