Last weekend, Cornell football’s improbable undefeated start came to an end. The Red had few answers for the three-time defending Ivy champion Harvard Crimson in Cambridge, falling by a score of 29-13. Cornell dropped to 3-1 with the defeat, but will look to get back on the right track at home against Sacred Heart on Saturday.
Sacred Heart (4-1) will make the journey west to Ithaca this weekend, after a bye week, marking just the second time the two programs have met in their histories. Last season, the Pioneers handed Cornell a 31-6 loss, which sent the Red to 0-5 on the year. The Pioneers should present another tough challenge for Cornell in week five, and the Red must follow these three keys to earn a victory at home.
Get Off the Field on Third Down
Last week against Harvard, third downs killed the Red. After falling behind early, Cornell needed stops on defense, but the Red simply could not clamp down on the Crimson’s offense on third down. Harvard converted on over 60 percent of them, and each delivered a bigger blow to Cornell’s chances of coming back. Repeatedly giving up third downs on the same drive also kills the clock, putting the game further out of reach – and this is precisely what happened last Saturday.
Coming into last week’s game, Cornell had been successful in third down defense – giving up just over 35 percent – but this was certainly not the case against a strong Crimson offense. On paper, Sacred Heart is not as good as Harvard at converting third downs — picking up first downs just 38 percent of the time — but if the Cornell defense does not tighten up in these key spots, that percentage is likely to go up come Saturday.
Protect the Football
After not throwing an interception through his first 62 passes, sophomore quarterback Dalton Banks has been intercepted six times in the last two games. While Banks is still connecting on some important throws — he’s tossed six touchdowns in the past two contests — he must do a better job of protecting the football.
The Crimson defense picked him off three times. The Red’s very first play from scrimmage was intercepted at Cornell’s own 28-yard line, and the other two turnovers occurred inside the Harvard red zone, stalling productive drives before putting any points on the board. Seemingly each time Cornell was in position to make the game close, the Red turned the ball over. Sacred Heart’s defense only has four interceptions on the season so far, but if Banks continues to try to force throws into double coverage, the Pioneers’ secondary may be in for some fun.
Control Time of Possession
Time of possession is not always a significant number in football. Teams who have the ball for only 20 minutes – or sometime even less – can still win. Yet, for Cornell to get back to its winning ways, possessing the ball for more than 24 minutes – the team’s time of possession from a week ago – is another key.
Time of possession is important for several reasons. For the most part, a team scores points when its offense is on the field, so having the football less than half the game makes this a challenge; it also puts pressure on the quarterback to make big plays by making risky, low-percentage throws.
Time of possession is also important because it means the defense is not constantly out on the field. During the Harvard game, there were multiple long defensive series (upwards of five or six minutes) that were followed by quick three-and-outs by the Cornell offense. After a punt, the defense is forced to come right back out onto the field, and it makes it increasingly difficult to bring the same intensity play after play.
In Cornell’s Homecoming victory over Yale the Red dominated time of possession. In Sacred Heart’s five games, the Pioneers lost the T.O.P. battle just once – in their only loss of the season against Wagner. Unless Cornell wants to rely on big plays on offense, the Red should aim to possess the ball for at least half the game to earn a good shot to win.