November 21, 2003

Football Hopes to Play Spoiler at Penn

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The football team heads into its final weekend of play with a singular mindset of playing spoiler. Looking to end its own eight-game losing streak, the Red (1-8, 0-6 Ivy) will have to do so at the expense of Penn’s perfect season. The No. 8 Quakers have already claimed the Ivy League title, but will be looking to complete just the eighth undefeated campaign in school history at Franklin Field tomorrow.

“It’s a tough task, but I’m not going to languish, nor will the players,” said Cornell head coach Tim Pendergast. “Every game is a tough task.”

While Cornell has struggled throughout its frustrating eight-game slide, last week’s 34-21 loss to Columbia stands out as a somewhat bittersweet highlight. In the closely contested match-up, Cornell senior quarterback D.J. Busch threw for a career-best 312 yards. While leading his offense to within a breath of victory, Busch connected with senior Vic Yanz on eight occasions for 106 yards and fellow classmate John Kellner on 10 plays for 95 yards. It was the hottest anyone has seen the Cornell offense this season and provided a feeling of increased momentum heading into the Red’s toughest game of the year.

Excepting a first-quarter marred with errors and miscues, the Red defense also showed signs of life, holding the rolling Columbia offense to 368 total yards on the day.

Leading the charge for the Red, as has been the case all season, was senior safety Neil Morrissey. The Ivy League’s fourth ranked tackler (9.1 per game) registered 13 tackles, including nine solo efforts.

While the Red has been closely matched for most of its games this season, tomorrow’s contest will be particularly trying, as the Quakers come in with more to gain than lose.

“I expect them to be the type of team that they’ve been for nine games this season,” said Pendergast. “I expect that we’re going to see a team that wants to remain unbeaten, a team that wants to remain unbeaten over the past four years … They do have more to play for.”

The Ivy League’s reigning kings are led by an assembly of standouts and have not relied upon a single star at any point this season.

Senior quarterback Mike Mitchell averages 261.1 yards per game, while featured sophomore running back Sam Matthews leads the league in all purpose yards per game with a mark of 168.9.

However, Penn’s weapons do not stop there. Junior wideout Dan Castles is also an Ivy leader with 96.1 receiving yards per game, while Joe Phillips and Adam Francks — sharing duties returning punts — are second and third respectively in yards per return.

“They don’t do a whole lot of complicated things on offense, they just execute very well,” said senior co-captain Kevin Rooney. “I think we’ve got a good game plan, and we’re going to give it a shot.”

Even more unfortunate for the Red, though, is the fact that the Quakers true potency is in the form of their defensive exploits.

Led by a host of talented individual performers, the Quakers have watched a different member of their defensive unit step up almost every week.

Last week, in a 32-24 win over Harvard to seal the Ivy title, senior linebacker Steve Lhotak took the lead role. Along with making a game-saving tackle as time expired, Lhotak tallied an incredible 16 tackles and 4.5 sacks on the day.

Due to its ability to find more sources of excellence each week, Penn has been the Ivy League’s true touchstone of defensive prowess for the last two seasons.

This year’s unit currently tops the Ivies in scoring defense (allowing just 16.6 points per game), rush defense (90.2 ypg, more than 20 yards better than anyone else), total defense (320 ypg, which is 40 yards better than second place Cornell), and opponent first downs (with 132).

The Quakers have also maintained a knack for the big play in 2003, causing eight more turnovers than any other team in the league. This has also allowed Penn to garner a plus-10 turnover margin for the season.

Still, though, Cornell believes that it can use the momentum gained from last week’s near miss against Columbia, and its reality of having nothing to lose, to provide Penn with a viable final obstacle to its perfect year.

Tomorrow’s game, which will be televised on the YES Network, will be the 95th time Penn and Cornell have met on the season’s final weekend and each is looking for an ending to remember. For the Quakers it would mean a taste of perfection, for the Red it would mean the sweetness of playing the spoiler.

“We’ve got nothing to play for [this] week, expect to spoil Penn’s year,” said Busch after last weekend’s loss to Columbia. “And that’s good enough for us.”

Archived article by Scott Jones