Fourteen of the past 17 games between the Cornell and Princeton football teams have been decided by a touchdown or less, and the 2012 matchup tomorrow at 12:30 p.m. on Schoellkopf Field figures to be no different. The Red (3-3, 1-2 Ivy League) hopes to save its season when the squad begins a stretch of three out of four home games to end the year against the surprising first-place Tigers (4-2, 3-0), a contest televised by Time Warner Cable.
Last Saturday in Princeton, N.J., the Tigers pulled off a stunner for the ages to shake up the Ivy title race — scoring 29 unanswered points in the fourth quarter to defeat conference favorite and nationally-ranked Harvard, 39-34, despite trailing by 24 with just 12 minutes remaining. The Crimson had won a Division I-best 14 straight games by an average of 25 points, while Princeton had compiled a 5-22 record in its previous 27 contests.
This year’s Princeton team seems to present a whole new story, though, as the Tigers have won four consecutive games and sit alone in first place in the Ancient Eight with a 3-0 mark after being picked to finish last in the preseason.
“Year in and year out, so many things change,” said Red junior quarterback and offensive co-captain Jeff Mathews. “[Princeton] is a different team this year — they play with a whole different type of energy. They’ve grown up over the year. And we’re also a different team than we were last year.”
Cornell has stumbled to a 1-2 Ivy start, including a frustrating seven-point defeat at Brown last weekend. Even so, the Red remains very much in the Ivy picture, as a win over Princeton would move the club within one game of the top of the standings.
Against the Bears, Mathews tossed three interceptions for only the second time in his career. The Red certainly expects a resurgent performance from the 2011 All-Ivy signal caller, who amassed 521 yards and five touchdowns following his other three-pick outing in November of last year.
“Any time you don’t play up to the level that you expect to play to give your team a chance to win, I think that’s a huge motivating factor,” Mathews said. “And I think our team as a whole is very motivated to come back and show we’re a better team than we were last week and get a win.”
The Red’s quest for redemption will not be easy. Princeton’s defense allows a conference-low 15.3 points per game, a total Cornell has failed to surpass three times this year. Tigers senior defensive linemen Caraun Reid and Mike Catapano have combined for 12 sacks and 16.5 tackles for loss in 2012, while senior linebacker Andrew Starks has recorded a team-high 54 tackles.
“They have a very good defensive line — [Reid and Catapano] are both very good players,” Mathews said. “They have some solid players in the linebacking corps and in the secondary. Our [offensive] line is improving week in and week out also, so it’ll be a good test for us … I think we’re going to match up very well against them and we’ve just got to make plays.”
Princeton’s offense, meanwhile, is more unconventional than Cornell’s once-vaunted attack, employing a two-quarterback system with sophomores Connor Michelsen and Quinn Epperly. Unlike the Red, Princeton has not wasted offensive production, ranking second in the Ancient Eight in points per game despite accumulating the seventh-most yards.
The Tigers entered the fourth quarter against the Crimson with only three passing touchdowns on the season, but they added four more in fifteen minutes — three by Michelsen and a 36-yard heave by Epperly with 13 seconds left that capped the heroic comeback. Red freshman cornerback Jarrod Watson-Lewis said he doesn’t believe the substitution of quarterbacks presents an additional challenge for the defense.
“It won’t really make too much of a difference for us,” Watson-Lewis said. “We’ll scheme against it and probably have different packages for different quarterbacks, but we’ve seen it before.”
Watson-Lewis led Cornell with 11 tackles against Brown, but the talented rookie acknowledges that he and his teammates must take down ball carriers upon first contact. The visitors this weekend will try to counter the Red’s mission with a rushing attack that averages 154.8 yards per game. Five different Tigers, including Michelsen and Epperly, have taken at least 39 carries in 2012.
“Tackling was one of the biggest issues we had — [Brown] had 190-something yards after contact,” Watson-Lewis said. “We practice tackling every day, but we just need to make tackles in the game and maybe it’ll be a different outcome.”
A stingy defensive performance will indeed be the key to a Cornell win based on recent history. In head coach Kent Austin’s two-and-a-half seasons, the Red is 7-0 when allowing fewer than 20 points to its opponent and 3-16 when surrendering 20 or more.
Cornell relinquished just one touchdown to the Tigers in last year’s sound 24-7 win at Princeton University Stadium during a relentless snowstorm over Halloween Weekend, an exception to the rule of thrilling finishes when the two programs go head-to-head. But the Red is always prepared for a down-to-the-wire contest, especially against the Tigers, who have tasted sole possession of first place in the Ivies for the first time in 17 seasons.
“Week in and week out in this league, you’re going to play very good football teams and a lot of those are going to come down to close games,” Mathews said. “It comes down to us making more plays than they do and at the end of the day, that’s what we’ve got to focus on.”