The biggest little game in the nation

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By MIA O'BRIEN
College Contributor Network

(This is a special presentation of "The Whole Nine Yards." Look for the usual, college football preview next week!)

It made USA Today and NBC News. Newspapers and television stations as far away as London and Paris were reporting on this breaking story in Central New York.

A disease? A shooting?

Try over 3,000 college students partying in the streets.

Goes without saying, but the 55th Annual Cortaca Jug game between SUNY Cortland and Ithaca College was unlike any of its 54 predecessors.

Following Cortland's fourth consecutive Jug win-the Red Dragons' longest win streak in the history of the rivalry -- somewhere between 3,000 and 6,000 students took their celebration to the streets of Cortland. And somewhere along the way, tables and chairs were thrown, students jumped off roofs, and one student reportedly wandered around the city with an ax.

Many speculated if this would be the end of the Jug, a rivalry Sports Illustrated's John Walters infamously referred to in 1991 as "the biggest little game in the nation." The only sold-out game of the year on both the Red Dragons' and the Ithaca College Bombers' schedule, the name "Cortaca" is even a licensed trademark owned by both institutions: the popularity of the game more often than not exceeds the popularity of the respective teams on the field.

But, as SUNY Cortland President Erik Bitterbaum remarks, a change has occurred over the last decade. "I think what has occurred over time," Bitterbaum remarked, "is that the game has become separate from the party."

Thus, the 56th Annual Cortaca Jug Game will be played this Saturday at the SUNY Cortland Athltic Complex -- but with plenty of questions still being asked.

Just how have we gotten to this point where a Division III football game prompts students to jump off roofs and wander around with axes? In this special edition of the "Whole Nine Yards," here's a breakdown of where the Cortaca Jug has been-and where it's headed.

History of the Jug

Separated by just 21 miles along Route 13 in Central New York, the Ithaca-Cortland rivalry was born out of -- of all things -- friendship. The two sides had been playing since 1930, but, in 1959, Cortland football captain Tom Decker took the rivalry to a new-level; all by purchasing a $2 jug at a yard sale in hopes of using it as a trophy awarded to the winner of the annual game. But what he did next was even more revolutionary, when he teamed up with (of all people) his friend Dick Carmean and painted the jug blue, gold, red, and white.

Just who was Dick Carmean?

How about the Ithaca College football captain?

From there on, the annual match-up would become the "Jug," and the rest, as they say, is history. Cortland took that first game in 1959, but would not win again until 1964. They would win three-straight from 1966 to 1968 -- the longest streak in school history up until last season.

After years of traveling back-and-forth each year between the two schools, the Jug found a near permanent home at Ithaca during the reign of legendary head coach Jim Butterfield. The Bombers would win all but three (yes, three) games between 1973 and 1995. One of those losses came in the 1988 Cortaca Jug, which the Bombers would avenge later that season in the two teams' only playoff match-up to date.

The Jugs (seeing as a second Jug was added when they ran out of room in the mid-1980s) are inscribed with the score from each game over the last 54 years.

Even if they've struggled as of late, the Bombers still lead the Red Dragons all time in Cortaca Jug victories 34-21.

History in the making?

After rallying to win the 2010 Cortaca Jug on a questionable touchdown call, the Red Dragons have dominated the Bombers -- and, more often than not, a lot of other teams, too. Cortland went 9-2 in both 2011 and 2012, before a rebuilding year pushed them back to a 6-4 record a season ago -- a record that was only able to push above .500 because of a thrilling victory in the final game of the regular season: the Cortaca Jug.

In the 2012 Jug, it was Ithaca running back Clay Ardoin who was stopped at the goal-line to cement another Cortland victory. In 2013, it was a 41-yard touchdown by Cortland wide receiver John Babin and a late fumble on a potentially, game-saving drive by the Bombers that gave Cortland their record, fourth straight win. It also made the Class of 2014 the first Ithaca College class to never win a Cortaca Jug in their four years on the South Hill.

It was something no one-not the teams, not the fans, not myself or any of those broadcasting that game-could have predicted. In fact, in speaking to some of the Cortland State players earlier that week, they were excited for the shot at the record fourth win, but with Ithaca's clinching conference title victory a week before, there was some apprehension in their voices. Moreover, this was a Cortland team that was already starting several freshmen to begin the season, and then lost nine starters to injury. On paper, they were too young, too beat up, and played too lousy an New Jersey Athletic Conference (NJAC) schedule to compete.

But, hey, as the Cortland President says, "It's a unique game: the ball bounces the wrong way one time and who knows what will happen."

Sights and sounds from last year

"It feels horrible; it feels pathetically bad. I really wish for this group of guys that we could've got one. We worked too hard not to win those things."

Tom Scanlon '14
Ithaca Strong Safety

"We're a playoff team; we've played ten games this year; and that's where we're going."

Mike Welch
Ithaca Head Coach

"As the president of SUNY Cortland, I would like to personally apologize to the Cortland community for the inexcusable behavior of some of our students related to Saturday's football game with Ithaca College."

President Erik Bitterbaum
Official Statement

"This is gonna get 100,000 YouTube hits."

Unidentified student

"It just means a lot to win this one for [our seniors]. These guys, [expletive] they do so much for us"

John Babin
Cortland Junior Wide Receiver
Postgame interview on ICTV's Bombers Live to Sideline Reporter Mia O'Brien
(what, did you really think I wouldn't include that one?)

The 2014 Ithaca College Bombers

Much like last year, the Bombers come into this one on a somewhat-surprisingly winning note.

After suffering two losses to Buffalo State and then last-place Frostburg State in Weeks 5 and 6, Ithaca has rebounded to take its last three games -- and, thanks to a couple of key losses by some of their Empire 8 Conference counterparts, have captured their second straight title.

Offensively, the team returned the majority of its starters from a year ago, including senior quarterback Tom Dempsey, a slew of wide receivers, and all but one of its offensive linemen. Its biggest question mark coming into 2014 remains its biggest question mark heading into the Cortaca Jug: the tailback position, which appeared solidified by freshman Tristan Brown until he went down with an injury in Week 7.

The heart of last year's Bombers team, though, was its defense, where it has since lost nine starters to graduation. Like so many Ithaca teams of the past, they've reloaded -- and still have defensive mastermind and former All-American linebacker at Ithaca, Mark McDonough, as their defensive coordinator.

Ithaca (7-2) defeated No. 15 St. John Fisher last weekend 19-8 to clinch the conference title. They did the same thing exactly one year earlier when they defeated Salisbury 24-23 in overtime. For, after both contests, they'd be pitted against a downtrodden, young Cortland Red Dragon team...

The 2014 Cortland State Red Dragons

Although not as young as they were a year ago, the Red Dragons have struggled to find their footing at times more than any Cortland team in the past five seasons.

They began the season 0-4, with the first two losses coming via mismanagement of the clock. Against Buffalo State (who would subsequently hand Ithaca their first loss), Cortland was set to punt with six seconds remaining. They ran the ball backwards 22 yards and slid with the intent of ending the game, but one second remained on the clock. The Buffalo State kicker then made a 49-yard field goal to force overtime, where the Bengals would take the contest on another field goal. One week later, this time against Brockport, with the play clock off, the Red Dragons were indecisive whether to go for it on fourth down or bring the kicking unit on. With seconds to go, they tried to rush the snap, but were called for a penalty with three seconds left. A 10-second runoff was assessed for that final penalty, and the game ended with the Red Dragons on the losing side.

However, the Red Dragons responded with three straight wins after that dismal start before falling to NJAC leader Montclair State. They did, however, win last weekend against William Patterson, just as they won big against Morrisville State the week before last year's Cortaca Jug. A nice tune-up? Perhaps.

For the Red Dragons, the return of junior quarterback John Grassi and junior tailback Dylan Peebles have been vital in pacing the offense with 2,122 yards and 595 yards, respectively. Defensively, though, the Red Dragons have struggled more than in previous years, allowing over 24 points per game.

And as for Mr. John Babin, currently back in Cortland for a fifth, redshirt senior year? He's only been featured in two games due to injury. Something tells me though, with no chance at the playoffs or an ECAC bowl bid, we just might see him in the Jug, one last time-good thing the game is at SUNY Cortland this season and yours truly will not be on the sidelines.

What to watch for

John Grassi has thrown 14 interceptions this season; the Ithaca defense has recently come into its own in that category, and now has 10 on the season -- including three last week. Last year, the going got a little too rough for Grassi, and Tyler Hughes was inserted under center late in the second quarter of the Cortaca Jug. Hughes proved to be the spark that led to Cortland's eventual win, so it will be interesting to see how a more experienced Grassi will fare against the Bombers.

Given the aforementioned injury to Tristan Brown, it will be interesting to see how Cortland counters the Bombers' offense. Wide receiver Josh Oliver saw the bulk of the carries for the second straight week, carrying the ball 21 times for 42 yards. Dempsey, meanwhile, was 19 of 27 for 144 yards.

Also to note: last week was the first time we really saw preseason Second Team All-American Sam Carney return any punts and/or kicks for IC after being slowed up by a high-ankle sprain at the end of the preseason. Even when he has been in the backfield, no one is punting to him; will the Red Dragons continue that or will Carney give them no option-especially if Oliver is taking the bulk of the handoffs?

And, of course, the one thing every Ithaca College fan would love to see: captain and wide receiver Vito Boffoli taking the hand off tossing the subsequent touchdown throw. Saw it in last year's Cortaca Jug and we've seen it twice this season already. Will it happen again?

In response to last year

Law enforcement and school officials have taken several measures to ensure a safe and enjoyable environment for all in Cortland on Saturday, in hopes of "taking back" Cortaca.

The University and City of Cortland formed a commission immediately following last year's event and will now put into action several initiatives to curb the 'party" culture surrounding the game. Musical act White Panda will headline a Saturday night concert at the school from 7:30 p.m. to 11 p.m while $20,000 worth of door-prizes will be given out. There will also be "clean-up teams" on Sunday morning following the game to collect trash in the community by noon.

Town bars will also open "much later" than last year, when many opened their doors at 8 a.m.

The SUNY Cortland University Police Department will be assisted by other SUNY school's police while the City of Cortland's police will be focused throughout the city, Frederic Pierce, the Director of Public Relations at SUNY Cortland, said.

Police forces on the South Hill will also be furthering their efforts.

"Public Safety is teaming with SGA, RHA and other organizations to walk through the off-campus housing areas to speak with students/residents," David Dray, Deputy Chief of the Office of Public Safety and Emergency Management said. "We will be talking about "partying responsibly" as well as being "a good neighbor". We want everyone to enjoy the game and festivities, but to be respectful of others."

For as Bitterbaum noted, "a lot of students last year felt that Cortaca was hijacked by outside visitors. It was very rare it was a Cortland student [being arrested for rioting]. So they want to take it back so it's for them."

A national pastime

Since 2006, hundreds of Ithaca and Cortland alum gather bright and early-thanks to the three hour time difference-for CortaCal. What began as a small gathering in an apartment in Sherman Oaks, CA has become a large gathering at 33 Taps (formerly Dillon's Irish Pub) in Hollywood.

Since the creation of CortaCal, there is also NYCortaca, DC Cortaca, Boston Cortaca, and a gathering in Philadelphia as well.

Wondering why there are hundreds of 20-something's on the subway in the wee hours of Saturday morning? Yeah... #Cortaca2014.

The last laugh

Thank you to all those who've humored this break from the "Whole Nine Yards" typical format-which will return next week. But as John Walters once said... "there's something warm and fuzzy about Division III."

Especially in the Finger Lakes.


Mia O'Brien is a senior at Ithaca College's Roy H. Park School of Communications, where basically everyone calls her "Mobrien." She's a fan of country music, a good debate, and French dressing -- in no particular order. For sports updates, random musings, and many a creative hashtag, follow her on Twitter: @OBSportsLive16
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