The Cornell football team looks to pick up where it left off last year amid high expectations when the Red plays its first game of the 2012 season against Fordham tomorrow at 1 p.m. in the Bronx, N.Y. Third-year head coach Kent Austin and staff rally several returning starters and 31 freshmen to Jack Coffey Field for the eighth-ever meeting between the two clubs, which the Red hopes will be the first chapter of a historic season.
Fordham, on the other hand, aims to rebuild after a 1-10 season, although the Rams (1-1, 0-0 Patriot League) already matched their 2011 win total with a 55-0 shutout over Division II Lock Haven two weeks ago. Fordham’s most recent glory days came when current Arizona Cardinals starting quarterback John Skelton completed 802 passes for 9,923 yards and 69 touchdowns — all school records — from 2006 to 2009, including a 420-yard, five-score effort in a 39-27 victory over the Red at Schoellkopf Field in Oct. 2009.
Cornell now boasts an elite quarterback itself, reigning Ivy League Offensive Player of the Year and junior offensive co-captain Jeff Mathews, the engine of coordinator Jeff Fela’s well-oiled offensive machine. The Red averaged 341.5 passing yards and 31.3 points per game last season, including 110 in consecutive wins over Columbia and Penn to end the year. Fordham has limited its first two opponents to only 77.5 passing yards per game, but fifth-year senior wide receiver Shane Savage — the Ivy leader in receptions, yards and touchdowns in 2011 — is confident that the Red will break down the Rams defense and resume its high-scoring habit.
“We definitely want to build off those last two games that we had. We’re going to spread the ball around and try to put up that same type of yardage — that’s our expectation,” said Savage, who is part of a superb trio of wide receivers along with senior and offensive co-captain Luke Tasker and senior Kurt Ondash. Each of the three finished with over 800 receiving yards last year.
Even with Mathews’ talent and several playmakers, the Red would not be in its current position — coming off the first .500 season since 2007 and projected to finish third in the Ancient Eight — without a greatly improved offensive line. After surrendering 49 sacks in 2010, the men up front allowed only 30 last year and gave Mathews plenty of time to set the Ivy single-season passing record.
“[The offensive line] has definitely been one of the biggest things for us over the past couple of years,” Savage said. “It’s so important — protecting the QB, giving the receivers more time in their routes [and] opening up holes for the running backs. It’s everything.”
The Cornell defense, meanwhile, enters the season with uncertainties that the club must address to win its first-ever outright Ivy League Championship. The Red lost arguably its three best, all-Ivy defensive players from 2011 in cornerback Rashad Campbell ’11, linebacker Brandon Lainhart ’11 and defensive end Zack Imhoff ’11. The secondary is the biggest question mark, as the first line has combined for zero collegiate starts and includes freshmen cornerbacks Jarrod Watson-Lewis [Oceanside, Calif.] and Kendall Brown [Carson, Calif.], whom junior middle linebacker and defensive co-captain Brett Buehler praised.
“We think this year we’ve got a lot of athletic freshmen, especially defensive backs,” said Buehler, whose 68 tackles in 2011 were the most of any returning Red player. “A couple times last year we got beat by the deep ball. If we can shut down the deep ball and stop the run, there shouldn’t be a team that can beat us.”
Austin also noted that big plays, especially between the 20’s, nullified the unit’s strong red-zone defense. Despite gaining 407.7 yards per contest — roughly the same number the prolific Red offense produced — Cornell opponents scored on only 67 percent of their trips inside the 20-yard line.
“[The defense] was pretty good in scoring territory, but not everything outside of that area,” Austin said. “We’ve got to quit giving up the big plays and get teams more in third-and-long. We have to be better in first-down defense … We’ll be a little bit more aggressive defensively and put a little more athleticism on the field.”
Former safeties coach Kim Dameron took over as defensive coordinator in the offseason and implemented a simplified scheme to try to ease the personnel changes. Buehler believes the new tactics will create a far more active and versatile Red defense, particularly against the Rams, who netted 312 yards in a 28-13 loss to Villanova last Saturday. Fordham senior quarterback Ryan Higgins threw for 123 yards and a touchdown, while sophomore backup quarterback Michael Nebrich ran for 107 yards and a score — the second Ram signal caller in history to rush for over 100 yards.
“[The new system] gives us a lot of different ways to put pressure on players from different angles — pressure coming from all different parts of the field,” Buehler said. “It gives us a bunch of different looks and gets in the head of the other team … We should put up just as good of numbers defensively as our offense does, especially this week.”
Senior linebacker and special teams captain Michael Hernandez also pledged that the Red defense would not let the offensive production go unrewarded in 2012.
“I think as a team we don’t want to be too reliant on the offense to win us games — we want to be able as a defense to hold our own,” he said. “We don’t want to be known only as a high-scoring offense, but a hard-hitting defense as well. I think we’re definitely going to do that, especially with the new schemes.”
Another crucial departure for the Red that cannot be overlooked was the graduation of kicker Brad Greenway ’11, who hit 13-of-15 field goals and all 36 extra points in 2011 and led Cornell in scoring four straight years. Junior John Wells will attempt to fill Greenway’s shoes, but the loss of an exceptional kicker at the Football Championship Subdivision level is a big blow that could alter the Red’s strategy when threatening to score.
Since 2007, Cornell is 4-1 in season-openers and 14-31 in all other contests. The Red hopes to continue the former trend when the team finally begins its 2012 campaign tomorrow afternoon. Although Cornell will not be the very last Division I team to kick off its season, as it has been in four of the last nine years, the two-week lag behind most squads leaves the Red players quite eager to get going in live action.
“It’s time to play, and I think our guys are ready to play,” Austin said. “It’s a long camp [and] guys have worked hard. Just listening to them talk and the way they’re practicing, I know they’re anxious to just get down there and play the game.”