“Huge.” That’s the word observers have used to describe the magnitude of the Cornell football team’s game at Harvard tomorrow at 1 p.m. Yet the Red players themselves know it is most effective to treat their matchup with the defending Ivy League Champion and undefeated Crimson (3-0, 1-0 Ivy) in Cambridge, Mass., like any other contest.
“We recognize this is a big game for us, but importantly it’s a big game because it’s the next game,” said junior safety Brian Gee, who stepped in last week and made several big plays down the stretch to help the Red (2-1, 1-0) grind out a 15-10 victory over Bucknell. “We’re going to prepare like we do every week and we’re just going to give the best effort we can and try and piece it all together.”
The talented Gee, who was injured for the majority of his first two seasons, is part of a resurgent Cornell defense that allowed only 16 total points in the last two outings. Thus, the playmaking unit figures to surrender fewer than the 41 points it spotted Harvard on Oct. 8 of last year in a 10-point loss, but the Crimson scored 53 in a shellacking of Holy Cross last Saturday to avenge its most recent loss in the 2011 season-opener. Perhaps more impressive, two weeks ago Harvard put up 45 points on a stalwart Brown defense that ranked first in the Ivies last season in a 14-point conference-opening win.
“This is by far the best football team we’ve played this year. They have an outstanding team [and] a great tradition,” said Cornell head coach Kent Austin, referring to the program that has won six League titles in head coach Tim Murphy’s 18 seasons. “[Harvard Stadium] is going to be a tough place for us to go and pull a victory from, but that being said I think our guys are pretty excited. We’ll be well prepared and we’ll play hard.”
“Obviously they’ve been very successful over the years, but what we’ve got to focus on is we’re just playing Harvard this year,” added junior quarterback and offensive co-captain Jeff Mathews. “It doesn’t matter that they’ve got an ‘H’ on their helmet — we’ve got to focus on what we do. They’ve got some good players, but we’ve got a lot of good players too.”
The Red again faces productive Crimson senior quarterback Colton Chapple, who, like Bucknell signal caller Brandon Wesley, can make plays with his arm and feet. The big-bodied tight end duo of junior Cameron Brate and senior Kyle Juszczyk have caught 29 of Chapple’s passes for 394 yards and five touchdowns in 2012.
“Colton is a really good football player,” Austin said. “He manages their offense very well, he’s very accurate and he has the ability to pull the ball down and run for first downs as well. He does a great job with the personnel around him and we’ve got to contain him. If we don’t, he’s got the ability to put up really big numbers.”
Chapple and Mathews combined for 736 passing yards and seven touchdowns in the meeting on Schoellkopf Field last season. As both players have had a year to improve, they offer arguably the highest quality Ancient Eight quarterback showdown since Buffalo Bills signal caller and Harvard grad Ryan Fitzpatrick ’05 defeated Yale and its one-year legend Alvin Cowan ’04 on Nov. 22, 2003. Chapple and Mathews have each thrown seven touchdowns and just one interception through three games.
For the Red to take down the Crimson for the first time since 2005, though, the defense will have to do more than prevent a big day from Chapple. Harvard senior running back Treavor Scales averages 130.3 rushing yards per game on 7.5 yards per carry this year with six touchdowns. Scales was named the Ivy League Player of the Week after each of the first two games of the season, a tribute to Harvard’s offensive balance. Nonetheless, a blossoming Cornell D seems unfazed.
“I think the defense has really taken significant, large strides,” Gee said. “We just have to be assignment-sound. If you’re trying to do more than your assignment, everyone’s going to mess up. Everyone doing their individual effort becomes one big team effort.”
The Cornell running game produces half the number of yards its defense relinquishes on the ground. Freshman running back Luke Hagy did as best he could against a swarming Bison defense last Saturday night, netting 25 yards on 10 carries and avoiding big losses. The task for the promising rookie doesn’t get any easier tomorrow, as the Crimson’s rush defense ranks second in the nation (59.7 ypg), anchored by leading tacklers and senior linebackers Bobby Schneider and Joshua Boyd.
The Red offense starts and ends with its passing attack anyway, although Cornell has run into trouble in the red zone in 2012. While Mathews averages 369 yards per contest and moves the ball downfield at will, the team has scored touchdowns on only 56 percent of its trips inside the opponent’s 20-yard line.
“We have to be highly efficient in scoring territory,” Austin said. “Offensively there’s been times in games where our miscues have come in scoring territory. We’ve got to play a really good game technically [and] we’ve got to eliminate penalties.”
Cutting down on dropped passes would certainly help the Red capitalize on its ubiquitous opportunities to score points. The productive Cornell receivers, super reliable in 2011, have had their hands on roughly one-third of Mathews’ 47 incompletions this season. The squad is crossing its fingers that fifth-year senior wide receiver Shane Savage, who has missed 175 of 180 minutes nursing a lower leg injury, will be cleared to play and make his imprint on the game.
“I think when [Savage] gets back to speed, we’ll click right away,” Mathews said of the 5-10 wideout who led the Ivies a season ago with 1,080 yards and 12 touchdowns on 65 receptions. “He’ll find a spot in our offense wherever he can produce because he’s a great football player. We’ve missed him this year, but we’ve had other guys step up. I think him getting back adds another weapon to what we do offensively.”
Although the Red’s execution has oscillated this year, the offense still protects the football. Cornell has turned the ball over only once since fumbling on its very first play from scrimmage in 2012. Harvard senior defensive back D.J. Monroe and sophomore defensive back Norman Hayes, who have combined for 31 tackles and nine pass break ups but no interceptions, will be chomping at the bit to record the Crimson secondary’s first pick of the season. The defense also boasts a ferocious pass rush that leads the country with 14 sacks, including four by sophomore defensive end Zach Hodges and three by senior defensive end John Lyon.
Even so, an athletic Cornell offensive line is capable of dictating the line of scrimmage, especially when the Red’s timing is on par. Senior center Bob Bullington will return to action against the Crimson after sitting out one game. The offensive co-captain’s absence last week and poor snaps by the replacement demonstrated that fans often take the center for granted — even one who broke his dominant right wrist during the offseason and now snaps with his left hand.
“This team has a lot of guys who play with a lot of heart,” Mathews said. “We have a lot of guys who play really hard and we prepare in the right way. We need to continue that and we need to keep getting better in our execution, but as long as our fight and our will to win is there, we’ll be alright.”