November 10, 2008

Secondary makes adjustments, gets big turnovers

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On Saturday at Schoellkopf Field, Dartmouth football head coach Buddy Teevens had no desire to run the ball. When Teevens handed the reigns to freshman quarterback Conner Kempe, he was giving him more than just his first collegiate start, Teevens was giving Kempe the opportunity to be Colt Brennan for a day.
“They really threw out a total one-sided passing attack,” said Cornell head coach Jim Knowles ’87. “… What they were calling play-wise in the first half [surprised us]. That was different. We knew they had struggled running the ball, but we still thought that they would do it.”
[img_assist|nid=33442|title=Yes we can|desc=Senior co-captain Graham Rihn (96) blocks his third field goal of the year. Sophomore Andy Wade picked up the block and returned it for a touchdown.|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]In a nutshell, the Green didn’t run the ball in the Red’s 37-14 victory. Averaging only 54.3 yards per game on the ground going into Saturday, Dartmouth didn’t seem to have much desire to try and to raise that average (Dartmouth did finish with 58 yards). Maybe Teevens was thinking of the game tape he must have watched during the week, showing Cornell’s secondary getting burned on big pass plays each of the past four weeks. After the game Teevens said he had anticipated Cornell would roll out a cover-three defense on most plays — a formation designed to stop the run and big pass plays, while allowing for small gains in the air.
And the Red did just that, at least until the coaches noticed the Green’s pass-happy approach. Dartmouth ran the ball only once on its first possession, setting the tone for a half where it would only rush the ball six times.
“[Cornell was] coming after us and I thought we protected fairly well. We made some accurate throws and they backed off the pressure from that point on.”
The Red secondary did seem to be on its heels a bit on the first drive, watching Kempe march the Green down the field, picking up yards in small chunks through the air. Kempe finished the quarter with 105 yards on 12-of-18 passing — roughly doubling his career passing yards. Knowles and his staff had a solution, though.
“[Dartmouth] just started throwing the ball all of the time, so at that point we started playing more full zone to get jams and to get people in throwing lanes,” Knowles said. “We wanted to make [Kempe] make the precise throws. … We really closed the windows and tried to make him make some really good throws.”
And Kempe did make some good throws. He showed glimpses of a strong, accurate arm, but he also showed his inexperience, missing some receivers and trying to force some balls in to ill-advised spots.
“He’s trying to make some plays and sometimes you force a ball,” Teevens said.
Perhaps more importantly for the Red, though, was not Kempe’s mistakes, but the secondary’s successes. As a unit, the secondary has been picked on and hung out to dry in several games this year. The Red only had two interceptions coming into Saturday, but went home with five.
Knowles had talked about winning the turnover battle all season, but Cornell had not been able to do it in large part because the defense hadn’t come up with many takeaways. That was far from the case Saturday.
“Our team has given great effort, but it’s been that ability … to get the interceptions when you have a chance,” Knowles said. “… Those things our team has not had, not done enough of. We just kept talking about them and kept emphasizing them. You have to break on a thrown ball and go up and get it and we did some of that today.”
They did it out of a zone defense and cover-two shell that the defense switched two when they saw Dartmouth’s pass-first, run-never attack. With only seven defenders in the box to stop the run, Cornell looked to prey on any downfield mistakes from Kempe.
“We started playing a lot more cover-two and jamming receivers,” Knowles said.
“[As the game wore on Cornell] played a little bit more of a two-deep shell than what they had shown [in past games],” Teevens said. “ … I thought they played well and broke on the ball well.”
Kempe only had seven yards through the air in the second quarter, connecting on 1-of-6 passes. He also threw a pick to freshman Rashad Campbell that gave Cornell a short field to work with. The Red marched down and picked up a field goal, making the score 17-0.
Kempe’s second interception also came at a critical juncture and lead to the straw that may have broken the camel’s back. Down 17-0, Dartmouth came out of the locker room and started the third quarter off with a drive that took them down to the red zone. On a second-down play, it looked like Kempe had a man streaking down the sideline toward the pylon. Senior safety Tim Bax read the ball well, breaking over from the middle of the field, and made a leaping grab before falling out of bounds at the Cornell three-yard line.
“It was a well-thrown ball and if the safety is a step late, that’s a touchdown,” Teevens said.
But instead of 17-7, the Red offense was on the field again with a comfortable cushion. Two plays later, senior quarterback Nathan Ford connected with senior wide out Bryan Walters on a flea flicker. Walters outran the Dartmouth secondary and scampered home for a 96-yard score — 24-0.
“The flea flicker, that really hurt us,” said Dartmouth linebacker Tony Bates. “Especially to start off the second half.”
Even though the Red’s last interception — a look-what-I-found snag at the line of scrimmage by senior lineman Dario Arrezzo with a blocker draped on him — came in the fourth quarter with the score already out of reach at 30-7, the Cornell offense still cashed in for seven more points.
“All that training our guys had gotten to do in the zone coverage of breaking on the football [helped],” Knowles said. “[Dartmouth] was one-dimensional, so our guys could really focus on doing those things like breaking on the passes because the run wasn’t a threat. I think anytime you can focus on one thing you have a better chance of making plays.”