With high hopes and unbridled confidence, Cornell football entered Saturday’s clash against Harvard on a three-game winning streak, hungry for another upset. But once the game started, Ivy League powerhouse Harvard showed why the Crimson, not the Red, is the winningest program in Division I FCS football since 2001.
Winning 27 of its last 28 games, the Crimson defeated Cornell, 29-13, halting the Red’s winning streak at three. Harvard now stands as the only undefeated team in the league.
The Red entered the game hoping to upend Harvard and earn its second road victory over a ranked team in as many weeks, after not winning one such game for the previous 66 years.
But it was not to be.
“I love playing Harvard because they really set the bar, in my opinion, for Ivy League football in the past couple years,” said head coach David Archer ‘05. “You love to play the best. I have said that I hope we go play our best [against the Crimson], unfortunately we didn’t.”
In the days leading up to the game, Archer had stressed the importance of starting strong against Harvard. Yet the Red was unable to quiet Harvard early in the game. After falling into first-quarter holes in each of its two previous away games, Cornell did the same against the Crimson. Sophomore quarterback Dalton Banks was intercepted on his first pass of the game and Harvard took advantage, scoring a few plays later.
“It’s tremendous momentum when you pick the first play off,” Archer said.
Cornell’s first points of the day came off a 41-yard pass from Banks to senior wide receiver Ben Rogers. The quarterback looked off the defense with a deceptive pump fake, before airing it out to Rogers.
Banks threw for 257 yard, but struggled with efficiency. For the second straight game, the sophomore tossed three interceptions.
Archer gave credit to Harvard’s secondary in figuring out how to defend against Banks’ aerial attack. The Crimson’s defense limited the sophomore to a 48.7 completion percentage, the first time all year he has been below 50 percent.
Banks’ counterpart Joe Viviano, who shared Ivy League Offensive Player of the Week honors with Banks last week, finished with 229 passing yards and a touchdown.
Before the game, Archer emphasized that putting pressure on the Crimson quarterback would be critical to the team’s success. While the team was relatively successful at getting past Harvard’s vaunted offensive line, Viviano showed he can be just as dangerous with his legs, rushing for 57 yards, including several critical first downs.
“[The defense] put pressure on him and it forces him to try to make plays with his legs,” Archer said. “Which is, from defensive perspective, a real threat when the quarterback can run. I think the Harvard quarterback was able to extend some plays when we had pretty good coverage.”
Thanks to strong rushing from Viviano, Harvard tacked on another score just as the first quarter ended, giving the Crimson a 14-7 lead.
The defenses appeared to be locked in as the second quarter began, forcing interceptions and halting the opposing team’s offense. Both teams traded picks in the quarter, but neither threatened to score.
Archer praised the efforts from his defense, noting that, despite the loss, the Red was able to play near its best against one of the top offenses in the country.
“I thought our defense played really, really tough,” Archer said.
After being held scoreless in the second quarter, Harvard opened the third with a touchdown, but Cornell blocked the point after kick to keep the Crimson within 13. The Red seemed to bounce back immediately from the score, marching down the field to Harvard’s 21-yard line, but Banks was intercepted again — this time in the endzone.
The Crimson turned Banks’ mistake into points, methodically working down the field to convert a 31-yard field goal.
More strong defense from the Crimson continued to shut down Cornell for the majority of the second half, deflating hopes of a magical comeback like last week against Colgate. Harvard tacked on another touchdown midway through the fourth quarter, extending the Crimson’s lead to 22.
With the clock ticking down, the Red’s offense began to click in the fourth quarter, scoring when Rogers snagged a 29-yard pass from Banks. But after Harvard recovered the ensuing onsides kick, the fate of the game was all but sealed and Cornell’s hopes for undefeated season came to an end.
Despite the loss, the game represents a marked improvement from last year. In 2015, Harvard racked up almost 500 yards of offense against Cornell in the Crimson’s 40-3 blowout in Ithaca. This year, the Red limited Harvard’s high-powered offense to 388 yards.
Archer acknowledged that there were certainly some positives in the loss.
“Very disappointed with the outcome of the game but I still see a tremendous amount of progress in our program and that’s what we’re here to do,” Archer said. “I see this as a great opportunity for growth for our 2016 football team”
This week brings a new challenge for Cornell football: practicing after coming off of a loss. Archer mentioned that the team’s early winning streak had perhaps made the men of the program overlook ways in which they could improve.
With a full week leading up to next Saturday’s home game against Sacred Heart, all eyes will look to see whether or not the team can bounce back from the loss and fix the weaknesses that were made apparent against the Crimson.