Coming off a resounding Homecoming victory, the Cornell football team looks to stay hot against its 2011 Homecoming prey, Bucknell, in Lewisburg, Pa., tomorrow at 6 p.m. The Red (1-1, 1-0 Ivy League) is focused on taking care of the Bison (1-2, 0-1 Patriot League) for the sixth straight year as a high-profile matchup at defending Ivy champion Harvard lurks over Fall Break.
Last Saturday against Yale, the Cornell offense sharpened up from its season opener at Fordham, the defense was fast and furious and freshman running back Luke Hagy, the Ivy League Rookie of the Week, notched 157 yards of total offense and two rushing scores in the 45-6 drubbing.
The last of these accomplishments, joked former NFL quarterback Doug Flutie on NBC Sports Network’s broadcast of the win over Yale, rivals the inherent pass-first philosophy of Cornell head coach Kent Austin. Flutie and Austin, who hold the first and second totals for passing yards in a Canadian Football League season, respectively, are good friends. Austin, the Ole Miss offensive coordinator from 2008-09, stressed that the Bulldogs’ three-down defensive formation encouraged the Red to run but that he values a potent running game nonetheless.
“Every complexion of a football game is different. Schematically [Yale] just played a defense that we felt like was a good look for us to run the football against,” Austin said after last weekend’s game.
“If you look statistically at my past and do any due diligence, you’ll see that we were a very balanced offense at Ole Miss,” he added this week. “Obviously I favor the pass, but I certainly understand the value and the need to have a great running game.”
The new-look Red ground attack faces a stiff test this week, as an historically stingy Bucknell defense relinquished only 11 rushing yards to Lafayette in a 20-14 home loss last Saturday. The Bison, who ranked third in the nation in rushing defense and second in forced turnovers in 2011, recorded an astonishing 13 tackles for loss against the Leopards.
“They’re experienced on the [defensive] line,” Hagy said. “We know that they’re going to be very physical on defense and they all get to the ball. I’m going to have to [run] north and south and get as many yards as I can on each carry.”
“Bucknell runs well on defense,” Austin added. “They play with a lot of energy, they really play hard up front, they play to the whistle and it’ll be a challenge for us.”
If the Bison contain Hagy and Cornell’s other rushers, the Red can always turn to the country’s second-best passing attack. Junior quarterback and offensive co-captain Jeff Mathews is on a tear, averaging 414.5 yards per game in 2012 with seven touchdowns.
On the other side of the ball, it is anyone’s guess as to which version of the Red defense will show up — the unit that stifled Fordham in the first half of the opener and bullied Yale last week, or the one that leaked in the second half against the Rams and struggled for much of last season. Austin said he is confident that it will be the former.
“Those guys are only going to get a lot better, especially the young guys playing,” Austin said. “You have to grow as a player in real games — there’s only so much you can simulate [in practice] — so as the season goes on, I think you’re going to see the production [and] the performance continue to increase.”
However, the Red will play without its leading tackler, freshman cornerback Jarrod Watson-Lewis, whom the Ivy League suspended one game for his helmet-to-helmet hit on Yale freshman wide receiver Austin Reuland in the first quarter. The referees flagged Watson-Lewis for a 15-yard personal foul penalty but they did not eject him from the game. Senior defensive tackle Emile Chang is also out with an injury, while senior linebacker and special teams co-captain Michael Hernandez will miss his second game in a row.
The shorthanded Cornell D must contend with a dangerous dual-threat quarterback, Bucknell junior Brandon Wesley, who posted 239 passing yards, 76 rushing yards and two total touchdowns last week. The Red overwhelmed Wesley for minus-4 rushing yards in Cornell’s memorable 24-13 win in Ithaca a season ago, although the Bison signal caller tied a career-high with 267 passing yards — his 2010 output against the Red as well.
“[Wesley] is real athletic and we’ve seen him for three straight years now,” said junior linebacker and defensive co-captain Brett Buehler, who had seven tackles against the Bulldogs. “He’s always been a good runner, and as the years go by, he’s getting better and better at passing. He’s a big focus of our game plan.”
The Red will not have to focus on Bucknell senior running back Tyler Smith, the Patriot League’s leading rusher in 2011, if he sits out a third straight game. Smith, whom the Red held to 28 rushing yards in last year’s meeting, injured his ankle in the Bison’s season-opening win at Marist and has missed two games. Bucknell could use Smith’s services for an offense struggling to get in the end zone, as the Bison have gained 47.5 more yards per game than in 2011 but have scored 8.5 points fewer.
Bucknell swallowed a tough pill in its six-point loss to Lafayette when the Bison rallied from a halftime deficit but turned the ball over on downs on a potential game-winning drive in the final minute. Unfortunately for this weekend’s hosts, they will be reminded of a similar ending from last year’s Homecoming matchup at Schoellkopf Field when Cornell arrives in Lewisburg tomorrow afternoon. With the Red leading, 17-13, Bucknell failed on fourth down inside the Cornell 10-yard line and before anyone could blink, Mathews launched an 87-yard touchdown bomb to then-junior wide receiver Kurt Ondash to seal the deal.
Austin, though, instructs his players not to live in the past or the future. In this case, it is difficult for the Red not to anticipate its Oct. 6 matchup with the Crimson, but the third-year head coach doesn’t worry about his team’s mentality.
“I think our guys are pretty well focused on what we’re trying to implement philosophically, and that is one play at a time, one day at a time and to win the day,” Austin said.