The Cornell football team hosts Yale for its Homecoming contest tomorrow at 1 p.m. following a disappointing season-opening loss at Fordham. As NBC Sports Network televises the battle on Schoellkopf Field, thousands of alumni, students and fans will gather under the Crescent to watch both schools’ first Ivy League game of 2012.
Last weekend in the Bronx, Cornell (0-1, 0-0) junior quarterback and offensive co-captain Jeff Mathews threw for 489 of the Red’s 518 total yards, simply replacing injured fifth-year senior wide receiver Shane Savage with junior receiver Grant Gellatly in the usual Savage-Luke Tasker-Kurt Ondash trio from last season. Savage — who extended his streak to 31 straight games with a reception early on last Saturday — is day-to-day with an injured leg.
After a strong first half, the Red defense allowed Fordham touchdowns on three consecutive second-half possessions and Cornell had to gain roughly 19 yards per point scored (518/27) as opposed to the Rams’ 14 (470/34), ultimately leading to a 34-27 Homecoming win for Fordham. The Red also failed to convert on six-of-seven third downs after intermission, but Mathews believes the offense will not leave points off the board again versus the Bulldogs.
“We just had bad mistakes in the red zone that cost us at inopportune times,” Mathews said. “And when we don’t convert [third downs], it hurts our offense. This week, we’ve really worked on what we’re going to do in key situations as far as play calling and also how we’re going to execute. Unfortunately we didn’t last week, but I think we will in upcoming weeks.”
Yale (1-0, 0-0), meanwhile, enters the contest on the heels of its sixth straight opening-week victory at Georgetown, 24-21. The Bulldogs have topped the Red in eight of the last 11 meetings, including a 37-17 victory on Sept. 24 of last year in New Haven, Conn. First-year head coach Tony Reno maintains a solid Yale defense that held the Hoyas to only 11 completions and one offensive touchdown. Senior linebacker Will McHale spearheaded the effort with 13 tackles and a sack while senior cornerback Colin Bibb’s interception clinched the game with 33 seconds remaining. Even so, Mathews, who completed 38 passes against the Rams, does not plan on slowing down against the Bulldogs.
“[Yale] has a very solid defense,” he said. “They play their schemes and they’re very fundamentally sound at what they do. I think as long as we’re fundamentally sound and we execute our plays, especially in the red zone, we’re going to be in good shape.”
Since it is tough to doubt the Ivy single-season yardage record-holder and his weapons, the Red defense’s performance will likely be the key to a second consecutive Homecoming triumph. The unit allowed 176 yards and two touchdowns to bouncy Fordham running back Carlton Koonce, which could spell trouble because two bruising Bulldogs, freshman Taylor Varga and senior Mordecai Cargill, combined for 179 yards and two scores last week. However, Red junior defensive tackle and defensive co-captain Tre’ Minor — who was limited to one tackle against the Rams after recording 48 in 2011 — believes Cornell is better suited to stop tomorrow’s assignment.
“Yale presents a different challenge,” Minor said. “Koonce was a smaller, more shifty back and Yale has bigger backs that are going to try to pound the ball, try to run in between the tackles [and] try to run [us] over. So it’s going to be more physical this weekend and we should be able to handle that quite well.”
Stuffing the run would aid Cornell’s pass rush and pass defense, which withered away in the second half against the Rams after a strong opening frame. The Red front four struggled to pressure and bring down Fordham quarterback Ryan Higgins, who completed 19-of-24 passes besides two interceptions by Cornell junior safety Kevin Laird. Freshman cornerback Jarrod Watson-Lewis recorded the Red’s only sack in the first half.
Opportunities to force turnovers could again present themselves to the Red, as Yale freshman quarterback Eric Williams threw three interceptions in the win over Georgetown, his first career game. Williams did, however, complete the longest pass in Yale history on a 98-yard touchdown to junior wide receiver Cameron Sandquist, and a notoriously generous Cornell defense allowed strikes of 63, 47 and 35 yards to the Rams in the second half. Minor said that, at times, the Red defense struggled to keep up with the no-huddle Fordham attack.
“More than anything, we’re just working on getting on the same page,” he said. “Everything was going well in the first half, [but] we had a couple people get a little tired because Fordham runs a hurry-up offense. But we’ve been getting our conditioning in and making sure everybody’s doing the right things.”
The Red players have also worked hard this week to maintain their focus and manage their emotions, but they cannot help but get pumped up for Homecoming, the first home game and perhaps the first step towards their goal of an Ivy League Championship.
“We’ve had a lot of excitement in practice this week,” Mathews said. “I think guys are just really excited to get after it, especially against a team that we lost to last year [and] that we’re excited to rebound against this year. It’s going to be a great test for us.”