Something has to give when the Ivy League’s top-ranked passing offense squares off against the best pass defense tomorrow at 12:30 p.m. on Schoellkopf Field. Cornell (4-3, 2-2 Ivy) and its high-volume air attack looks to get the better of Dartmouth (4-3, 2-2) and its daunting defense following a final-minute confidence-boosting victory.
The Red eked out a 37-35 home win over Princeton last weekend behind 525 passing yards by junior quarterback and offensive co-captain Jeff Mathews, an opportunistic defense and a deciding field goal by junior kicker John Wells. Dartmouth, meanwhile, fell to League favorite and defending champion Harvard, 31-14, on Homecoming in front of the largest crowd in Hanover, N.H. in 14 years.
The Red and the Green share identical overall and Ivy records of 4-3 and 2-2, respectively. The teams stand one game behind Harvard, Princeton and Penn (all 3-1) in a jumbled title race with three weeks until the finish line. A conference champion has suffered two losses just twice in 56 seasons, but both times Dartmouth shared the crown.
Cornell quarterbacks continue to rewrite the Ivy record books. Two weeks after senior backup Chris Amrhein threw for 523 yards, Mathews eclipsed that total by two yards last Saturday, moving his elder teammate’s mark back to fourth all-time. In the Red’s last nine contests, the two friends have combined for four of the conference’s top-five ever outputs.
The catalysts to those jaw-dropping numbers are the Cornell pass-catchers, as the roster includes four career 1,000-yard receivers for the first time in program history — senior special-teams co-captain Luke Tasker, injured fifth-year senior Shane Savage, senior Kurt Ondash and the latest player to top 1K, junior Grant Gellatly.
Tasker needs 74 yards to pass Savage’s single-season school receiving yardage record and 287 to break the career record held by Keith Ferguson ’03. The senior is on pace to register the Red’s second consecutive Ivy triple crown, leading the League in receptions (62), yards (1,007) and touchdowns (7).
“Luke is having an unbelievable season,” said head coach Kent Austin. “One of the things we really challenged him on in the offseason was strength endurance. He needed to get in much greater shape, even though he was a well-conditioned athlete, to sustain it for 10 weeks during the season. He’s been able to do that, and it’s a real credit to him. He’s a great kid, a really talented receiver and his character is off the charts.”
Austin also credits Savage, who finished 2011 with the Ancient Eight’s most catches (65), yards (1,080) and scores (12). A leg injury has prevented the fifth-year senior from playing all but a dozen downs this year, yet his contribution to the receiving corps remains tantamount.
“Shane is a great guy and he has been very, very helpful,” Austin said. “The guys respect him and look up to him. He has an even temperament and the [other receivers] really respond to that. Shane has helped to raise their game even though he hasn’t been on the field. I just feel really bad for him that he missed his senior year.”
Though Cornell’s 405.4 passing yards per game ranks second-best in the Football Championship Subdivision, its 49.6 rushing ypg ranks second-worst. Still, the team has found a niche for its freshman running back duo, as Luke Hagy and Silas Nacita have combined for 10 total touchdowns this season.
Hagy earned Ivy League Rookie of the Week honors after compiling 95 all-purpose yards and his first career receiving score in the win over the Tigers, while Nacita added a short touchdown on the ground. Hagy has posted 591 all-purpose yards so far, the most by a Red freshman since Bryan Walters ’10 recorded 847 in 2006.
The high-powered Red attack faces a tough challenge for the second straight game, as the Dartmouth defense surrenders a league-low 311.3 ypg and limited the Crimson to 133 yards below its season average. Junior linebacker Michael Runger leads the Ivies with 68 tackles, one of 11 Green defenders who have notched at least 20. Dartmouth’s active defensive line has combined for 83 stops.
Cornell senior left tackle J.C. Tretter, part of an offensive line that held up well against a ferocious Tigers D-line after the first quarter, said the Red must match the Green’s energy.
“They really hustle, especially their front four,” Tretter said. “They have a motor that never stops, and you have to bring the same intensity that they’re bringing. You’ve got to play to the echo of the whistle.”
An unforgiving Green pass defense relinquishes only 174.3 ypg through the air, but surprisingly Dartmouth has swiped only one interception in seven games. Austin lauded 13-year Green head coach Buddy Teevens for his club’s defensive discipline and preparation.
“They do a great job coaching their players,” Austin said. “Defensively, they’re very, very sound. In the passing game, they’re great pattern readers. They run match coverages as well as anybody I’ve seen in this league. They don’t get out of position and they don’t give up a lot of big plays.”
While Cornell’s passing offense has amassed at least 300 yards in eight of the last nine games, Dartmouth sophomore quarterback Alex Park tallied the first such game for the Green in three years in the loss to Harvard. Park threw for a career-high 310 yards and two touchdowns with one interception, hitting senior wide receiver Michael Reilly 12 times for 165 yards and a score. Sophomore wide receiver Ryan McManus added 103 yards on four catches, including a tackle-breaking touchdown that was good enough for Sportscenter’s No. 4 play on its daily Top-10.
Dartmouth outgained Harvard and trailed by only seven entering the fourth quarter, but the Green couldn’t keep up as the defending Ivy Champs rolled to a 17-point win. Dartmouth did not test Harvard’s top-ranked run defense in the FCS, although junior running back Dominick Pierre, the Ivy’s fourth-leading rusher, made an impact nonetheless with nine receptions for 56 yards.
The Red defense, which has recorded just four sacks in opponents’ last 158 passing attempts, could be in trouble if it fails to bring down Park. Austin said he believes sacks are sometimes an “overblown” statistic, but the third-year coach acknowledged that his front four must at least hurry the quarterback to reduce the 465 ypg it allows — 10th worst out of 121 FCS teams.
“Hurries are the more important [stat,]” Austin said. “If we’re giving a talented quarterback, especially an accurate quarterback, too much time in the pocket, then it becomes an issue. We’ve got to be able to force the issue a little bit more, collapse the pocket a little bit quicker, and be able to do that without having to bring five or six guys. That’s really where we’ve been lacking this year.”
Even so, the Cornell defense has developed into a turnover machine, especially at opportune times. Junior safety Brian Gee forced two fumbles against Princeton, including one that set up the game-winning drive, while sophomore linebackers Andrew Nelson and Taylor Betros each snatched their second interceptions of the season.
Sophomore safety Rush Miller, whose 56 tackles are second-most on the team, attributes the turnovers to the unit’s stick-to-itiveness.
“They’re honestly just a result of the energy that we play with and that sort of dynamic that we bring to the game,” Miller said. “And the competitiveness that [defensive coordinator Kim Dameron] really instills in us. Just go out and have a short memory — forget the last play and focus on the play right now, because that’s the play that will decide the game.”
The Red hopes tomorrow’s game is decided differently than last year’s matchup win the Green. On Nov. 5, 2011, Mathews threw three interceptions and Dartmouth running back Nick Schwieger ’12 ran all over the Red for a school-record 257 yards as the hosts triumphed in Hanover, 33-24, the Green’s third straight win in the series.
Luckily for Cornell, this season’s matchup switches to Schoellkopf, where the Red is 3-0 in 2012 while averaging 41 points and 543 yards per contest. The squad stays in Ithaca for back-to-back weeks for the first and only time this year.
With such a tight race unfolding in the Ancient Eight, Cornell could get caught up in its moment-to-moment chances of winning the title, but then the players would be missing the point of why they play football.
“You’ve got to go out there and just play because you love the game,” Tretter said. “That’s something you kind of forget in the grind of the season. We know where we stand, but we’re not going to be scoreboard watching or anything like that. We can’t worry about what other teams are doing right now — we’ve got to go out there and win these last three games, take care of what we can take care of, and finish our season the right way.”
“I feel like a big part of football that kind of gets lost especially when you get to higher levels is just playing the game,” he said. “I think that’s what we really embodied last week — going out and just playing the game. We went out, we competed and at the end of the day, we just let the chips fall where they may. And at the end of the day, we [had more] on the scoreboard.”