Three weeks ago, Cornell carried the ball 31 times against Yale for 106 yards. At Colgate two weekends ago, it handed the ball off 38 for 155 yards. Last week, when Lehigh visited Schoellkopf Field those numbers dwindled to 29 rushes for 77 yards.
Oddly enough the Red still notched more rushing yards per game than last year’s average of 71.3.
But head coach Tim Pendergast is looking to increase the rushing statistics for the current season come tomorrow against Harvard.
Being one of the paramount issues facing Pendergast in his inaugural season, the running game and its importance was emphasized by the coach before he entered into his first games. And he has continued that trend as Cornell enters into its second conference game and fourth overall.
“Everything [the running game] has done in practice has been great,” senior tailback Evan Simmons said. “We’ve improved over the week. It’s just a matter of doing it in the games now and seeing how it works. It’s not going to be something we’re going to be able tell unless we do it.”
Cornell has not reached its potential on the ground. Injury, new coaching and having to make up deficits via the passing game have all led to fewer rushes, yards and a feeling of under-utilization in the backfield.
Simmons suffered an ankle injury in pre-season training. And he still feels that the coaching staff is unsure about whether he has completely recovered.
“I think I have to do the job of getting the confidence back because I was injured earlier on in the season. I don’t know if [the coaches] think my game might be inhibited because of stuff like that,” Simmons disclosed.
The running backs have had the additional burden of adjusting to their fourth coach in four years, Scott Walker. Even though he is the first of them to be a full-time running back coach, he brings in unfamiliar techniques that must develop over time.
Furthermore, the Red has put itself in situations where passing and quick scores were necessary. Had Cornell led 14-10 in the first half and controlled time of possession, Pendergast maintained that his team could have rushed for perhaps 200 yards.
“I think that we didn’t have the ball a lot the first half — 24 snaps if I’m not mistaken. That’s not a lot. Running backs are like pitchers in baseball, they need to be warmed up,” he explained.
Cornell has arguably more depth and experience in the backfield than in any other positions. Along with Simmons, classmate tri-captain Justin Dunleavy is listed as a tailback, doubling often as a fourth receiver. Junior fullbacks Nate Archer and Brian Ulbricht have also been consistent contributors this year, averaging almost 10 carries per game — five times the number of carries the two combined for all last year.
Also waiting in the wings is freshman Marcus Blanks who has not entered into a game thus far this season. The highly-touted recruit was expected to be introduced as the season progressed. He could add a surprise to the Red’s offense against Harvard.
Fortunately for the Red, the biggest road block in Cornell’s running game for tomorrow’s game is sidelined with an ankle injury. Dante Balestracci, last year’s Ivy League Rookie of the Year and the first freshman ever selected to be first team All-Ivy has sat out of the Crimson’s last two games and is not expected to return until Oct. 20.
Some Red football players are skeptical of the report.
“I think he’s going to play,” senior quarterback Ricky Rahne ventured. “I’ve prepared all week [as if] he’s going to play.”
Nonetheless, if he is absent, Balestracci will leave a vacuum in the Crimson’ defense.
“He’s obviously their best player on defense. He’s probably their emotional leader too. So that’s a big loss,” Cornell linebacker Jarad Madea noted.
Balestracci led Harvard in tackles last year with 94, and was a second-team All-American preseason selection. He is the star of the highest rated run-defense in the Ivy League, keeping the opposition to 108 yards per game. Losing a great linebacker definitely hurts Harvard, but Pendergast notes that the Red may have to face a merely good linebacker in his place.
In order to achieve the full potential of the running game, Cornell must commit to it early in the game and the offensive line must open holes for the rushers.
“We still really haven’t established a running game. I don’t think that having the tailback carry the ball only 12 times in a game is really a running game,” Simmons maligned about the offense. “I think we still throw a lot.”
Archived article by Amanda Angel