MOUNT VERNON – Any conference win on the road is a good win. But you can throw Cornell's 23-20 comeback last weekend at Monmouth in a different category.
"It's probably the biggest win to date since we've been here," said fourth-year head coach Vince Brautigam.
Down 20-3 midway through the third quarter, the Rams charged back with three long touchdown drives. The defense came through with a game-saving goal-line stand, setting up a 9-play, 80-yard march that saw quarterback Juan Flores score the winner on a 16-yard run with 40 seconds to go.
There were multiple layers to Cornell's last-minute victory against a quality Monmouth team that has claimed three of the last five Midwest Conference championships.
"It was a total team effort, from offense to defense to special teams. We overcame adversity and took a big step toward maturing as a football team," Brautigam said. "Winning is an expectation here now. We can't rest on our laurels. We gave the players 24 hours to enjoy the win. Now it's on to the next one."
The next one is Saturday's 100th Homecoming football game at Cornell. The Rams (2-1 overall, 2-0 MWC) take on the Beloit Buccaneers (1-3, 1-2 MWC) in a 2 p.m. kickoff at Ash Park Stadium.
The Rams are among four unbeatens in MWC play. They'll be seeking their first 3-0 start to a conference season since 2001, and their first Homecoming win since 2005.
"We need to get refocused on what we need to do to win this game," said Brautigam, who sits on 99 career victories in his 23rd collegiate season. "For Homecoming to be successful, we have to do our job as a football team."
Freshman kicker Kaleb Whiting provided Cornell's lone first-half points at Monmouth, booting a 49-yard field goal in the first quarter which proved huge in the end. The Ram offense came to life with 294 total yards in the second half. Preston Ritchie scored on a four-yard run in the third quarter. Flores reached pay dirt from one yard out on a fourth-down plunge with 10:03 to go, bringing the Rams to within 20-16.
Defensive stand – Monmouth led 20-16 and had 1st-and-goal at the Cornell 1 with less than four minutes to play. In the Monmouth backfield stood MWC-leading rusher Trey Yocum, who had gained 191 yards on 33 carries up to that point.
Sophomore lineman Mike Faison tackled Yocum for a 1-yard loss on first down. Linebackers Geoffrey Miller and Jeremy Demlow stopped Yocum for no gain on second down. The Fighting Scots tried a quarterback rollout on third down, but Demlow and Kenny Smith converged for a 2-yard loss. Monmouth then missed on a 20-yard field goal attempt.
"Coach (Jay) Davis made three great calls at the goal line," Brautigam said. "(Yocum) is a great running back and tough to tackle. Our defense was solid for the majority of the game."
Winning drive – Flores and company got the ball back with 2:28 remaining and 80 yards to go. Two Flores runs and four pass completions quickly had the Rams in Monmouth territory. Flores hit Brit Connor for a 26-yard gain, moving the ball to the Monmouth 16.
Flores misfired on a first-down pass. On second down, Flores took the shot-gun snap, sprinted through a seam on the left side and went in for the decisive touchdown. Flores finished with 102 rushing yards – his fifth career 100-yard game – on 21 carries. He was 23-of-36 passing for 231 yards.
About the Buccaneers – Beloit turned the ball over six times – two of which led to defensive touchdowns – in a 42-17 loss last Saturday at Grinnell. The Buccaneers battled back from a slow start and pulled within 21-17 on a 60-yard touchdown run by Mason Dixon early in the third quarter.
Dixon, a freshman, finished the game with 219 yards on 31 rushes. The previous week, Dixon ran for 200 yards and three touchdowns on just 12 carries in a 38-21 home win over Lawrence. Dixon averages 141 rushing yards per game, second in the MWC.
Beloit ranks second in the MWC with 11 sacks through four games. Junior end Brian Flanagan has recorded a league-best 4.5 sacks.
"Beloit is definitely a much better team this year," Brautigam said. "They are improved on both lines and have the second-leading rusher in the conference. We know we'll be in for a dogfight."
The series – Cornell owns a 33-18-2 advantage in the series, which began in 1900 with a Beloit 6-0 victory. The Rams have won 17 of the last 23 meetings with the Buccaneers.
Cornell beat Beloit, 40-14, in the 1992 MWC title game to cap a perfect 10-0 season. The Rams captured the 1984 conference championship with a 31-14 season-ending victory over the Buccaneers.
Last meeting – Cornell accumulated 558 yards on 83 offensive plays in last year's 48-8 rout in Beloit, Wis. The Rams netted a season-high 261 yards on the ground, while limiting Beloit to 77 yards on 35 carries.
Cornell's Justin Cox had seven receptions for 122 yards, including TD grabs of 17 and 28 yards. Flores passed for 284 yards, while running for 72 more and two scores. Demlow returned an interception 47 yards for a touchdown as Cornell reeled off 34 unanswered points to start the game.
Homecoming history – The Rams are 55-38-6 all-time on Homecoming, although have dropped their last seven such encounters. Last year, the Rams fell 20-16 to eventual MWC champion St. Norbert.
Saturday marks the 54th meeting with Beloit, but it's only the second time the Buccaneers have been Homecoming guests in Mount Vernon. The Rams won that 1962 contest, 17-0.
Rams in the rankings – Sophomore Ben Knake recorded his third career 100-yard receiving game last week with nine catches for 106 yards. He leads the MWC with 6.7 receptions per game.
Junior Myron Seabrook remains the MWC leader in punt return average at 14.3 yards. He returned two punts for 13 yards against Monmouth, and also came away with his ninth career interception.
TFL – The Ram defense had seven players record a tackle for loss in the Monmouth win. The improving unit averages 8.0 tackles for loss per game. Demlow is second in the MWC with 7.0 stops behind the line of scrimmage.
Hall of Famer – All-America defensive back Brent Sands '93 is one of three members in Cornell's 2013 Hall of Fame Class. He captained the 1992 undefeated MWC championship football team, the first in conference history to finish a season 10-0.
Sands set an NCAA Division III record by intercepting a pass in nine consecutive games during that historical 1992 season. A three-time all-conference performer, Sands was named MWC Defensive Player of the Year in 1992.