MOUNT VERNON - A possible win was within their grasp, but it was taken away.
In the end, those takeaways were just too much for Cornell to overcome.
Lake Forest survived a defensive battle by forcing five turnovers, including an interception in the end zone with six seconds left, for a 17-10 Midwest Conference victory Saturday at Ash Park.
Cornell Coach Vince Brautigam expected defense, special teams and field position to be keys. The teams combined for more punts (13) than total points (10) in the first half.
“It was absolutely the way we thought it would be,” Brautigam said. “When you turn the ball over like we did, you make it awful hard on ourselves and we still had a chance in the end.”
The Rams threatened in the final minute, needing a little more than 30 seconds to drive to the Lake Forest 18. After a spike stopped the clock and an incompletion, Cornell wide receiver Justin Cox appeared to have set up a game-tying extra point by coming down with a lofted Juan Flores pass. As the Rams celebrated, officials huddled in the end zone before ruling an interception by Forester defender Nick Waters.
“I went up caught it, came down on the ground and he took it out of my hands,” Cox said. “In my opinion, I caught it.”
Cox put the Rams in position late with an 8-yard touchdown grab from Flores with 3:49 remaining. It was a key conversion on 4th-and-goal.
“We had a crossing pattern that worked out pretty good,” Cox said. “I noticed they were in man coverage, so I ran to open grass, and luckily the quarterback and I were on the same page.”
Flores threw for 155 yards, including 27 to Cox and 45 to former Lisbon prep Ben Knake, who led the Rams in receiving yards and catches with six.
Brautigam said he will delay his opinion until after a close look at the game film. The call was hard to take, especially when it ended the Rams attempt of a late 14-point rally.
“I saw him go up and saw he had it in both of his hands and came down with it,” Brautigam said. “The official made the call he thought was right.
“It’s tough when it comes to a play like that. Maybe it shouldn’t have.”
The reason it maybe shouldn’t have was the number of miscues that plagued Cornell, including an interception after reaching the Lake Forest 12 midway through the final quarter. They also led to all 17 Lake Forest points. The biggest blow came from a 33-yard fumble return for a score by Ed Dobernig, putting Lake Forest up, 17-3, with 1:56 left in the third. It followed Jon Gurchak’s 25-yard field goal with 2:11 left in the third, which was set up by a Flores interception return to the Cornell 9.
Dobernig set up Lake Forest’s first touchdown in the opening quarter, taking an interception to the Rams’ 21. On the next play, Mike Lewis hit Mike Peters for a 21 yard score. That was the only blip from an impressive Rams defense that allowed just 87 total yards of offense and only four first downs.
Cornell allowed just 1.1 yards per rush, which has been a trend in recent weeks.
“We’ve played pretty dog gone good the last three games,” Brautigam said. “They gave up one big play, but they settled down and that was really the only one.”
Not only did the loss spoil a strong defensive effort, but it wasted a solid performance from running back Preston Ritchie, who ran for a season-high 120 yards. He said he didn’t care about statistics as much as a win Saturday.
“The offensive line blocked really good,” Ritchie said. “I was able to get the ball, cut up and there was a hole every time.”
He led the Rams in carries, having two more than Flores. The more opportunities the better Ritchie felt.
“When coach started giving me the ball more it gave me confidence,” Ritchie said. “It made me feel good because they trusted me with the ball.”
Ritchie has endured injuries and Saturday was indicative of his potential, complementing Ethan Thompson in the Rams backfield.
“He’s probably the healthiest he’s been in a long time,” Brautigam said. “We got to see what he can do. He can make people miss.”
Brautigam told his team it isn’t defined by one game, and to move on from the interception call. He said the better team won, because of the turnover edge. A positive was the Rams’ fight to the end.
“This is a team that knows we are never out of a game,” Brautigam said. “I’m proud of them.
“As a coach, the only thing you can ask is your kids don’t quit. They battled back, being down 14 and had a chance to tie it up.”