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Four years of cutting summers short for training camp, four go-arounds of seemingly endless days in the weight room and four seasons of donning the carnelian and white all led up to to this weekend’s tilt against Penn for the Red’s group of 26 seniors.
“I’ve really grown with these guys. They’ve shaped me,” said senior offensive lineman John Foster. “Not only as a football player but as a person. I’ve created bonds with my teammates. Even my best friends can’t compare to the bond I have with my teammates.”
To say it has been an emotionally and physically draining four years on the senior class would be an understatement, and their head coach will be the first to tell you that. Time and time again, head coach David Archer ’05 has labeled his oldest players as “resilient” and “unbelievably tough” given some of the circumstances they have endured during their time on the hill.
From the get-go, the current senior class was challenged. As the first freshman class following Archer’s hiring, the team recorded a 3-7 season, but went on to only muster two wins in their next two seasons.
This year, however, the team has improved in not only the win column, but also as a program. The seniors believe they have helped create a culture that will remain past their commencement in May.
“I think [the seniors] from the last year certainly laid a foundation and these guys certainly have put stuff on top of it,” Archer said. “I think that we have gone from a whatever we were last year to a competitive program. These guys have made a significant contribution to pushing this program forward.”
Perhaps no person would be better to fully experience this culture change than sophomore running back — and reigning Ivy co-offensive player of the week — Chris Walker. On and off the field, Walker said he appreciates just how much this class has shaped the current state of Cornell football.
“They’ve been through a lot,” he said, “but to respond like they did is just magnificent. We look up to them. They set the culture, we just try to build off it.”
Win or lose against Penn this weekend — a team vying to win at least a share of the Ivy title — the senior class will have left this program in a better shape than they found it.
They have a chance to improve the program further when Penn visits Ithaca on Saturday.
Despite a mediocre defense, the Quakers are certainly no team to take lightly. Penn sits at fourth in rush defense, fifth in pass defense and sixth in total defense, but what this team lacks in defense it certainly makes up for in offense.
Penn has totaled the second most touchdowns in the league this season and boasts the gold standard in several positions. Running back Tre Solomon and wide receiver Justin Watson sit at the top of individual standings for their respective positions, posting 734 and 1009 yards rushing and receiving, respectively.
Solomon holds 100 yards more than the next highest rusher — Walker, who has appeared in one fewer game — and Watson has almost 400 more receiving yards than the next highest receiver.
Penn quarterback Alek Torgersen is the second most efficient quarterback in the league, completing 65.7 percent of his passes and leads the rest of the Ancient Eight with 16 throwing touchdowns.
“You got to tackle on the open field,” Archer said. “These guys are so explosive with the ball in their hand, so you have to be able to put them down.”
Penn’s defeat of Harvard last weekend put the Quakers in a three-way tie for first place in the league. If Cornell pulls off the upset, Penn will only win the league if Harvard and Princeton both lose, an unlikely event considering the Crimson is playing a weak Yale squad and the Tigers are hosting last-place Dartmouth.
Being able to play spoiler is a welcome opportunity to Foster, and a win against the Quakers would allow him to go full circle. The last time Cornell beat Penn, he was a freshman.
“We feel like as a group we can definitely get this win and this win would mean a lot for this program,” he said. “It would put an exclamation point in the senior class’ impact on the program.”
Although he has only played one game against the Quakers, Walker is not shying away from the opportunity to make one final mark on the Ivy League this season.
“Earlier I was looking at their Twitter,” Walker said, “and [Penn’s account] posted, ‘One more game.’ I was like, ‘No, you’re not getting it.’”
This is not the first time the Red has had the chance to spoil Penn’s Ivy title hopes.
Back in 1982, the men of the 85th Cornell football squad found themselves in the same exact position as 2016’s team: welcoming a Penn team with the chance to thwart the Quakers’ chances at sole possession of a highly sought-out after Ivy title.
The goal was accomplished back when Ronald Reagan held the keys to the White House, as Cornell upset its Philadephia rivals 23-0 and the Quakers had to settle for just a share for the Ivy title. Will it happen again this week, as Penn is positioned for similar fate? Only the final whistle on Saturday will tell, but for now, the 2016 team has not forgotten about what the underdogs from Ithaca are capable of.
And the seniors, especially, are looking forward to sharing some glory with alumni 34 years removed, knowing they could create an enduring memory that will be seared in their minds and leave a sweet taste after 40 games in the carnelian and white.
“They said how great an experience that was at the time and they still talk about it with Penn alums they cross in everyday life,” Foster said. “They still talk about that victory. We’re looking forward to [the opportunity].”
“It’s a game seven of the world series,” Archer added. “There’s no tomorrow, so let’s just go out and let it rip.”