October 9, 2003

Defense Works on Fundamentals

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Thus far into the season, the football team (1-2, 0-1 Ivy) has employed a bend-but-don’t-break defense. However, as it heads into this weekend’s matchup against high-powered Harvard (3-0, 1-0 Ivy), that philosophy may have to change.

Harvard comes to Ithaca with the best offense in the country, averaging more than 530 yards of total offense per contest. Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick has been the single most dominant force in Division I-AA football, leading the nation with over 400 yards per game.

Unfortunately for Cornell, it’s had difficulty stopping anybody on defense, particularly on the ground, in three games this year. The Red is currently ranked 119 out of 121 teams against the run, giving up an average of 271.3 yards per contest. Only Chattanooga and Florida International have been worse. Overall, Cornell’s defense is ranked 101st in the nation, giving up 412 yards per game.

With a base defense consisting of four defensive linemen and four linebackers, the Red is geared to stop the run. However, it has faced some of the best runners in the country, making the task difficult.

“We saw some of the best backs we’ll see all year the last two weeks,” senior free safety Neil Morrisey said. “These guys are some of the best obviously. When we want to play, we’re as good as anybody. We’ve got to be clicking on all cylinders. When the run comes, we’ve got to stop it.”

Last week, the Red had the unenviable task of trying to stop Colgate runner Jamaal Branch. In the first half, Cornell hardly slowed the Raiders’ star tailback, as he slashed his way to 179 yards. He finished the game with 228 on the ground, the most ever by a Colgate back against Cornell. The week prior, the Red stifled Yale tailback Robert Carr in the first half. However, the defending Ivy League rushing champ reeled off several long runs and finished with 115 yards.

“They are great backs. Obviously, the Bucknell attack is a little different. A lot of it has to do with us. You can sit there and say that Robert Carr averages 120 yards a game. Sure, that’s going to happen. But where did the other 100 come from? Where did the other 130 come from? And that’s the problem,” Cornell head coach Tim Pendergast said.

Last week against Colgate, Morrisey, who was named the Ivy League’s Defensive Player of the Week, was forced to make 24 tackles from his safety position while junior cornerback Kyle Thomas made 11. And while Cornell’s defensive scheme calls for heavy run support from the secondary, many of those tackles were also made deep into the Cornell defensive backfield.

“The defense is designed for it, but if it’s working and we’re doing our thing, then we’re bumping off and a lot of guys are making plays, too,” Morrisey said.

According to Pendergast, the team is working hard to correct its problems against the run.

“It’s a problem that we have to and we are addressing. It’s a breakdown in all areas of the defense,” he said. “It’s not that our guys aren’t playing hard, it’s not a matter of our guys not trying, because they are. But fundamentals. You can go back and watch tape and if a guy goes into the wrong gap, it’s a fundamental breakdown. If he steps the wrong way, it’s a fundamental breakdown. And those are the types of things the coaches are trying to clean up.”

Archived article by Alex Ip