The main focus of Ivy League football this weekend is on the matchup between one-loss teams Harvard and Penn, but Cornell (4-4, 2-3 Ivy) and Columbia (2-6, 1-4) will battle behind the scenes in the third edition of the Empire State Bowl tomorrow at 12:30 p.m. in Manhattan, N.Y. The Red seeks its first and only conference road win of the year against a lowly Columbia squad in the 100th all-time series meeting.
Cornell showed up late to its home contest against Dartmouth last Saturday, digging an insurmountable hole by turning the ball over on its first three possessions in a 44-28 loss. The Red has likewise been outscored 31-0 in first quarters of 2012 road games leading to a 1-3 record, but the team is confident that it will reverse the trend against the Lions.
“It’s not like we’re not coming out ready to play — we have the attitude and mentality,” said junior linebacker, defensive co-captain and leading tackler Brett Buehler. “We’re going to come out the same this week as we have every other week and the [slow start] is going to change this week.”
Buehler and the Red have good reason to think so, as Harvard’s 69-0 domination of Columbia last week guaranteed the Lions their 16th consecutive losing season in the Ancient Eight.
Cornell scored its most points since 1956 in a 61-42 win over Columbia last year on Schoellkopf Field, thanks to a then-program record 521 passing yards and five touchdowns by junior quarterback and offensive co-captain Jeff Mathews. That victory wrestled back the all-New York crown from the Lions, who secured the first Empire State Bowl in 2010 with a last-minute 20-17 win on Robert K. Kraft Field.
The Red, eliminated from Ivy title contention, hopes to finish this season in a similar fashion.
“We have a two-game season now and we’re trying to finish off strong,” said freshman running back Luke Hagy, who has posted 703 total yards of offense and five touchdowns. “We’d love to win the last two conference games and we’re looking to come out and just play the best football that we’ve played all year.”
With Mathews and a bundle of playmakers, an offensive eruption is possible at any moment. Despite throwing three interceptions, Mathews became the most prolific passer in Cornell history against the Green and he stands 104 yards shy of Columbia’s John Witkowski ’84 for second all-time in the Ivies.
The last-placed Lions defense does not figure to offer much resistance to the 2011 Ivy League Offensive Player of the Year this time either, though the squad has forced 17 turnovers and registered 21 sacks on the year.
Mathews and company must keep their eye out for linebacker Zach Olinger. The junior has recorded 76 tackles (5.5 for loss) and two interceptions this season, including 14 stops on Saturday versus the Crimson. It did not seem to matter as Harvard scored 28 points in the first six minutes of the second quarter on its way to an embarrassing shutout of the Lions.
First-year Columbia head coach and former Red skipper Pete Mangurian must also deal with an inept offense that averages league lows of 13.1 points and 300 yards per game. Mangurian, who compiled a 16-14 overall record at Cornell from 1998-2000, has seen former all-Ivy quarterback Sean Brackett struggle in his senior season.
Brackett led the Ancient Eight is passing efficiency two years ago en route to first-team all-Ivy honors, but in 2012 he has completed only 52 percent of his passes for 1,508 yards with five touchdowns and eight interceptions.
“Many of the guys on our staff talk about [Brackett] quite a bit — we have a lot of respect for him,” said Cornell third-year head coach Kent Austin. “He’s very, very competitive, he makes plays, he’s a leader and he plays the game the way the game’s supposed to be played.”
Another weapon for Columbia is junior running back Marcorus Garrett, who has racked up 714 rushing yards and six total scores through eight games. The visitors this weekend are not overlooking the Lions in part because of the abilities of Brackett and Garrett, whose production the Red defense must limit, Buehler said.
“[Brackett] is a real good player and a real dangerous threat,” the linebacker said. “He’s a big part of their offense and they also have a really good tailback. So stopping them is part of our game plan and we think we can do that.”
Cornell, though, has had trouble stopping opponents since September. The Red’s top 11 tacklers are all underclassmen, indicating a bright future for the defense, but Buehler said the standards remain the same regardless of players’ experience.
“Our defense is young this year but we don’t use that as an excuse,” he said. “[The freshmen and sophomores] are good players and when we put them in there, we have full confidence in their ability. They’ve been doing great this year and they’ll keep it up.”
Tomorrow presents a prime opportunity for the Red to improve upon its 3-20 road mark in Ivy games since 2006. For now, however, full effort and improvement are more important than records and statistics.
“We have an opportunity to line up and play two more Ivy League opponents and to build on the success that we’ve had,” Austin said. “We can keep moving forward in a way that allows us to build a championship-level program and give some of our young players an opportunity to grow and mature quickly. I told the players, ‘Let’s play our best football of the year. Let’s put together a complete game in all three phases and focus on improving as a team.’”
For a freshman like Hagy, sending his predecessors out with dignity is also a priority.
“We’re trying to finish off strong because it’ll be sending out the seniors on the right note,” Hagy said. “The seniors have put in thousands of hours the last four years and they deserve to go out on top and we can do it for them in the last two games.”
Original Author: Quintin Schwab