The long and winding 2017 Cornell football season is finally coming to an end. And what a ride it has been.
After starting the campaign 0-3, the Red quickly crawled its way back into the Ivy title race in its dubbed “Revenge Tour,” moving to 3-1 in Ivy play for the first time in over a decade after a last-minute shocking win over Princeton.
But now, after consecutive losses to Dartmouth and Columbia, coupled with Yale’s win over Princeton last Saturday, Cornell’s Cinderella run is over, and the the team will take on a surging Penn squad to finish out the year.
But while a ring is no longer on the line, Cornell has made clear its firm desire to send its seniors off on a high note and notch its first winning Ivy record since 2005, hopefully becoming only the fifth preseason No. 8 ranked team to do so.
Here are three keys to accomplishing that feat:
Junior running back Chris Walker is irreplaceable. Archer will tell you that. His teammates will tell you that. And it’s more than evident when you just take a look at Cornell’s recent overall offensive production since his injury.
But sophomore running back Harold Coles has more than proved his capabilities to contribute on offense this season. All he needs are some touches.
Coles got the ball only 10 times in last weekend’s title-shattering loss to Columbia, while junior quarterback Dalton Banks attempted 26 passes. That’s not an extraordinarily high number by any means, but it resembles Cornell’s shift back to an offense that wasn’t working at the beginning of the season: pass-first.
Run-first has been the key to success for Cornell all season long. In the team’s upset win over Harvard, the Red attempted just 18 passes on the day and an astounding 59 rushes. Win over Brown: 53 rushes to 27 passes. Victory over Princeton: 42 rushes to 34 passes.
Meanwhile, Cornell passed more than it ran in the 10-0 shutout loss to Dartmouth and ran only eight more times than it threw against Columbia. It’s clear the run works, and head coch David Archer ’05 has made clear his priority to get Coles more involved come gameday in Philadelphia.
Penn’s Justin Watson is, by and large, the most electric offensive player in the Ivy League. With this being his only season without the dependable Alek Torgersen under center, Watson continues to put up simply ludicrous numbers, totaling 891 yards and 13 receiving touchdowns, the latter of which leads the league.
Watson has had to adapt to two different quarterbacks in Will Fischer-Colbrie and Nick Robinson, but you wouldn’t be able to tell from the statsheet. Penn’s all-time leading receptions leader has played an integral role in bringing his team back from the 0-3 Ivy graveyard to a respectable campaign that could see a winning league record for Penn with a win Saturday.
A bit of hope for Cornell, however, is the fact that Watson is coming off a down week despite Penn’s convincing win over Harvard. He had just 48 receiving yards on eight catches, still managing to find the end zone once. But the three games before? He totaled at least 120 yards per game and five touchdowns. It would be no surprise for those numbers to come back on the decorated senior’s last collegiate game at home.
“Justin Watson is an all-time great,” Archer said of the wide reciever, who torched the Cornell defense for 106 yards receiving last year.
Cornell can also be marginally reassured by the fact that it boasts the top pass defense in the Ivy League, giving up the fewest yards per game with 179 — about 20 less than Columbia at the No. 2 spot. Whenever the Penn offense is on the field Saturday, it’s sure to be a battle of titans you won’t want to miss.
Channel the Emotions
Saturday will obviously be an incredibly emotional time for both teams, as their respective seniors will play some of their final snaps of football — a majority of which will never put on the pads again.
But for Cornell, this senior sendoff of 25 student-athletes is even more emotional. It’s the first class fully-recruited by Archer and his staff; it’s the class that endured back-to-back 1-9 seasons in 2014 and 2015; and it’s a class full of record-setters and invaluable talent.
Losing a class every year is tough, but it’s clear just how much this senior class means to the team. The younger players have stressed their desire to send their elders out into the real world with a win, and the seniors want to do the same for themselves.
Only thing left is to actually do it.