In as early a climax as a season is ever likely to have, the two best teams in the Ivy League opened their seasons at Franklin Field in Philadelphia on Saturday. The result was more than just a good game—it was a doggone good game. Penn's Barking Dog defense lived up to its name, literally yapping and growling at the Cornell offense and hounding junior quarterback Aaron Sumida. But the Big Red players were not intimidated. "We barked right back," said cornerback Mike Raich. "And we bit them, too."
Right where it hurt. By outpassing, outrushing and outsacking the Quakers, who have won at least a share of each of the last five Ivy titles, Cornell became the front-runner for its first league championship since 1971. "Every time we shut them down, I growled like a rottweiler," said Big Red strong safety Brent Felitto after his team's 17-13 victory. "Deep and scratchy, not soft or squeaky. I didn't want to sound like a poodle."
Cornell, which is celebrating its football centennial, entered the game as a slight underdog, so to speak. Penn was coming off a 10-0 season. It had played its last 17 conference games at home without a loss and had won 21 of 22 against Ivy opponents dating back to the 1983 season. The Quakers clinched last year's league crown in the season finale, a 31-21 victory showdown against Cornell in which they outgained the Big Red 459 yards to 180.
This time around, Cornell's 4-3 defense limited Penn to 89 yards on the ground and 113 in the air. The Quakers' All-Ivy tailback, Chris Flynn, who moves so fast he almost flickers, was gang-tackled every time he got the ball and gained only 40 yards on 17 carries. And quarterback John Keller, a junior college transfer from Dodge City (Kans.) Community College, was flattened so often he seemed to become part of the artificial turf.
September 27, 1987
The chief engineer for Cornell's new Big Red machine is four-time All-Pro linebacker Maxie Baughan. "With a lot of coaches, football seems just like a vicarious experience," says Felitto. "But Maxie really knows what we're feeling on the field. You can see his mouth start to foam. If we gave him a helmet, he'd probably be out there with us."
Baughan, 49, played his first pro game with the Eagles 27 years ago at Franklin Field. "All I remember is that Jim Brown ran over me and we lost," he says. The Eagles then won 10 of 11 games and beat Vince Lombardi's Packers for the league title.
Baughan looks as if he could still go a few downs, and a couple of years ago in preseason practice he did just that. His position is unusual because it's endowed like a professorial chair. He was recommended for the vacant job in 1983 by former Baltimore Colt Tom Matte, a friend of influential Cornell alumnus Roger Weiss, an investment manager.
Frustrated by years of Big Red losses, Weiss donated some $750,000 to endow the coaching position. It was suggested that Baughan be the first man to fill the endowed chair. But Baughan, then defensive coordinator of the Detroit Lions, was preparing for the playoffs, so the entire four-member search committee flew to the Motor City to interview him. Baughan was so impressed that he sent his wife, Dianne, to scout out Ithaca, N.Y., where Cornell is located. She returned with such ecstatic reports of the campus and the people far above Cayuga's waters that Baughan took the job without ever visiting the school.
A Georgia Tech man himself, it took Baughan awhile to become accustomed to a system that allows no athletic scholarships, no redshirting, no freshman eligibility and one day of spring practice. Baughan, who calls beaten opponents So Whats, had little opportunity to use that expression in his first three seasons, when his teams went 3-6-1, 2-7 and 3-7. Then in 1986 the Big Red was 8-2 and finished second in the Ivies. "Our methodical May-to-December recruiting finally paid off," says Baughan. "One of our receivers is from Maine, and our quarterback is from Hawaii. That tells you a little bit." (Still, some players are found closer to home. Baughan's son Mark, a senior, is an outside linebacker.)
Before Saturday, Penn was the one Ivy school Baughan's teams had never beaten. And before the game some Quakers sounded downright blasè about their domination of the conference as they questioned Cornell's intensity. "Cornell's idea of tough is, 'Oooh, we'll give them such a pinch,' " sneered Penn defensive tackle Mike Lista.
"Cornell players are a bunch of love muffins," said linebacker Brad Hippenstiel, who was nearly expelled his freshman year for bow-hunting squirrels on the Penn Quad. "I hate Cornell and every other team in the Ivies, and every year my hatred for these dweezils grows deeper. People say Penn players are human, but we're not. We're between savages and cannibals. We're not quite cannibals, because they eat meat and we just spit at it."
In recent seasons the Quakers have gotten a reputation among their Ivy rivals for being rather ungentlemanly on the field—a charge the Barking Dogs don't deny—and rather un-Ivy in their approach to football off it. Indeed, on Saturday a Cornell alumnus blanketed Franklin Field with copies of a two-page parody of Penn's student newspaper, The Daily Pennsylvanian, that had the Quakers seceding from the Ancient Eight to play a schedule that included Nebraska, Ohio State and the New York Giants. Lista said his only worry was Cornell's practice of awarding its top defensive players Nepalese Gurkha knives. "I don't need anybody pulling a blade on me on the field," Lista complained. "I have a tough enough time getting home in West Philly."
As things turned out, Sumida stuck it to the Quaker secondary by continually shifting his receivers in endless variations of a play called the double right H-flY. "He had no reads, no dropbacks, no nothing," observed Jeff Reinebold, Penn's defensive backfield coach. "Sumida turned it into a basketball game. He just threw to the open man."
Sumida was not heavily recruited when he played at Konawaena High on Hawaii. He went to Cornell because one of the assistant coaches at Konawaena had gone there. Though Sumida hadn't played in a varsity game before this season, against the Quakers he completed 16 of 28 passes for 169 yards and engineered two scoring drives—the first for 99 yards in the second quarter, the second a 45-yarder in the second half. In pileups, Penn's Barking Dogs snarled at him, said things like, "You think you're bad. Wait till the next play—you're dead," and used his helmet as a handy push-off to help themselves to their feet. But Sumida kept cool. "Coach told us just to smile at them and get back in the huddle," he said.
The decisive play came midway through the fourth quarter, when Felitto decoded a Penn audible. On third-and-five on the Big Red 22-yard line and with Cornell ahead 17-10, Keller threw a play-action pass that Felitto deflected in the end zone beyond the reach of All-Ivy tight end Brent Novoselsky. The Quakers had to settle for a field goal. "When I heard them checking off, I left my man to run an inside drop," said Felitto. "I'll probably catch hell for this next week when we see the films."
But Felitto shouldn't be in Baughan's doghouse for long. "I've been waiting a long time to say this," Baughan said after the victory. His tone was devout. "Penn is a So What."