Looking more like the team that posted back-to-back one-win seasons than the squad that started this year 3-0, Cornell football wilted at home against Princeton Saturday, losing 56-7 to the Tigers.
The team’s 3-0 start — once the talk of campus — now seems like a distant memory. After four straight losses, this one by far the most embarrassing, the Red now sits at 3-4 with three games left in the season.
“We played what I think is our worst game of the season,” said head coach David Archer ’05. “I don’t think that was the real 2016 football team out there. This game is not going to define the rest of our season.”
After Princeton’s initial drive sputtered out, the Tigers scored touchdowns on three straight possessions, setting the tone for the blowout and placing Cornell into a hole the team was not able to dig out of.
Juking, tricking and dodging their way to 18 first-half first downs, the Tigers, self-assured and commanding, held a 35-0 lead at the half, in complete control of the game.
The Red’s defense seemed lost at times, leaving receivers wide open throughout the game; and the Tigers took full advantage. Princeton had 392 passing yards, 198 for John Lovett and 194 for Chad Kanoff. Five of the Tigers’ eight scores came through the air.
Lovett — on the roster as the backup quarterback — seemed to be everywhere for the Tigers. In the first half alone, Lovett accounted for five touchdowns — two passing, two rushing and one receiving. He tacked on two more passing scores in the second half.
“He just made a lot of plays. He can play with his arm, he can play with his feet,” Archer said. “Obviously we didn’t do a good job of [stopping him].”
Like Brown’s Alex Jette last week, Lovett found the soft spots in Cornell’s defense and exploited them over and over again. After his fireworks display in Ithaca, the one-man show now has 23 touchdowns on the season — more than Cornell, Brown, Dartmouth and Yale.
Play after play, the Tigers, running their unpredictable brand of football, utilized Lovett in a different way. Senior captain and linebacker Jackson Weber noted that Lovett plays comfortably at multiple positions on the field and is dangerous wherever he lines up.
“Running the ball, he is really patient,” the captain said. “As a quarterback, he can run, but when he is in the quarterback spot, he is almost like a true quarterback. As a receiver, just treat him as a normal receiver.”
Beyond just the team’s inability to contain Lovett, Archer was critical of the defense as a whole, chalking the performance up to “mental mistakes and physical mistakes.” Cornell gave up 645 yards, the second most in program history.
“[The defense] just wasn’t what we’ve been accustomed to this year,” the head coach said.
In the first six weeks of the season, the trademark of this Cornell defense had been takeaways. Even in the Red’s recent losses, the team prided itself on the defense forcing turnovers and getting the ball back to the offense. Interceptions and fumble recoveries were critical for Cornell to keep itself in games.
Yet on Saturday, the takeaways just would not come.
“Getting turnovers can get you back into any game even when you’re down,” Weber said. “That’s something we have focused on the past and will continue to focus on. Balls didn’t bounce our way today.”
The problems extended beyond just the defense.
On offense, the Red lost center Alex Emanuels to a leg injury in the first half and his absence was certainly felt. Princeton’s vaunted run defense neutralized Cornell’s rushing attack, holding the Red to just 49 yards on the ground.
After halftime, with fans trickling out of Schoellkopf Field, Cornell momentarily stopped the bleeding on the first drive of the second half when sophomore quarterback Dalton Banks hit senior captain and receiver Ben Rogers in the end zone, capping off an 86-yard drive. The score proved to be the team’s only touchdown of the game.
Yet Princeton came right back with a touchdown of its own. Though a sack backed the Tigers to their own five-yard line, the Red again brought pressure on second down, but Lovett deftly dodged the impending tacklers and tossed a quick pass to Isaiah Barnes. Barnes — who finished with 170 receiving yards — ran untouched into the endzone to reestablishing the Tigers’ lead back to 35.
Heads hanging and shoulders slumped, the men of the team were visibly dejected with the way the game was playing out. As Princeton’s lead ballooned, Cornell’s players showed their frustration in the second half.
When the referees penalized Cornell for a false start in the third quarter, the coaches and the players demonstratively disagreed with officials and continued to argue their case with the referees even as the next play began. The sideline was whistled for an unsportsmanlike conduct call.
“Anytime you’re down in a game it gets frustrating,” Weber said. “So you need to be able to recenter yourself and lock back in and be focused. Worry about what you can control and have an internal locus of control.”
According to Archer, that frustration stems from the players’ knowledge that they could have played better.
“They put so much into it and today just wasn’t our day,” Archer said.
Despite the depressed demeanor at the end of the game, Archer said he is confident the team will rebound and move past this deflating defeat.
“You need to make a decision that it’s not going to define us,” Archer said. “It’s not going to be carried over for anything longer than today. We can’t do anything about the Princeton football game right now, all we can concentrate on is Dartmouth and our last three games.”
Weber acknowledged that there are two paths the team can take as the final stretch of the season approaches.
“There’s two different directions I think this team can go,” Weber said. “We can mail it in and coast through the next three games and not continue to improve and not fight and not enjoy the last three weeks we have together. Or we can do the total opposite and continue to come with a hard hat every day, work hard, get better and cherish the bond that we have and continue to fight.”
The senior said he is confident the team will choose the latter path.