LEWISBURG, Pa. — For two years, stopping the run has been the bread and butter of the football team’s defensive unit. In the first quarter of Saturday’s night contest against Bucknell, this staple was absent from the Red’s performance, and the consequence was that Cornell left Christy Mathewson-Memorial Stadium still hungry for its first win of the young 2006 season after suffering a 20-5 defeat.
In 2005, Cornell’s rushing defense ranked second in the nation as it held opponents to 88.3 yards per game. The Bison (2-1, 0-1 Patriot League) trampled that mark in the first quarter alone on Saturday, using a quick-paced spread option offense to wrack up 91 rushing yards and jump out to a 17-3 advantage over the Red (0-1).
The Bison blew the game open with a 1-yard run from quarterback Adam Lair just 46 seconds into the game, followed by a 40-yard field goal from Will Carney with 5:55 left in the stanza and a 41-yard rushing touchdown from running back Peter Kaufman as time expired.
Head coach Jim Knowles ’87 attributed the damage to missed assignments and lack of experience — just six starters return from 2005 — on the behalf of the defensive corps.
“We kind of imploded there,” he said. “We just had some young guys that weren’t doing their assignment. The speed of the game got a little fast and they just couldn’t adjust. We’ll probably never face an option offense like that the rest of the year, but no excuses, we’re going to look at film.”
The Red’s leader on defense, senior tri-captain Jonathan Lucas, echoed Knowles’ diagnosis from what he saw at his defensive end position.
“I think it was pretty evident that this was our first game,” Lucas said. “It was tough. The defense wasn’t quite up to game speed in the first quarter. The second half we were better in our pursuit so that was nice.”
Bucknell’s advantage in having two games under its belt was compounded by the fact that one of those games was a 31-0 loss to then-No. 25 Lafayette on Sept. 9. The Leopard rank second in the Patriot League in rushing defense, averaging 134.4 yards per game.
“We’ve played some tough teams,” Bucknell head coach Tom Landis said. “Lafayette and Cornell were top-10 in the country last year against the rush. We’re going to run the option because that’s what we do. We might get beat by some teams but we believe in what we do."
Even though Cornell’s defense was able to buckle down in the final three quarters — holding the Bison to 141 rushing yards and shutting them out of the end zone — the Red was continually weakened as it lost experienced players.
Senior nose tackle Jeff Dicks went down with a leg injury in the first quarter. In the second half starters were repeatedly hobbling off the field, as sophomore whip Michael Boyd was the first Cornell player to fall victim to cramps, and junior linebackers Doug Lempa and Ryan Blessing and senior cornerback Matt Grant followed suit. Subsitute sophomore nose tackle Scott Boone also had to be assisted by a trainer due to cramps.
“We had guys cramping up, and it was the whole debate of, ‘Are we running them enough, are we taking enough plays in practice?’ And I don’t think we did,” Knowles said. “I told the guys that I take this loss on myself. We had guys that need to have conditioned better, been in better shape, and they weren’t. … We just had a lot of first game jitters.”
With the Red’s Ivy League opener looming on Saturday, Cornell plans to make adjustments to ensure that the breakdown in the first quarter of this weekend’s game is not repeated against Yale on Schoellkopf Field.
Two years ago we lost a heartbreaker [against Bucknell] and came back the following week against Yale. We’re going to look forward to doing that next week.”