November 21, 2003

Football Team Has Lots to Improve On

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Coming into this season, I thought that the Cornell football team would be one of the better squads in the Ivy League. Don’t believe me? Just look back at The Sun’s annual football supplement on Sept. 19. I picked the Red to finish fourth. After the 2002 campaign, which saw Cornell finish 4-6, including a 3-4 Ivy record (the team actually should have gone .500 with a winning record in the Ancient Eight had it not been for a freak loss to Princeton), I was looking forward to big things, and not just the huge Shortstop cookie that comes in my lunch in the Schoellkopf press box every home weekend.

Obviously, things haven’t gone the way that I, or anybody associated with Cornell football, could’ve imagined. On offense, the Red was returning its quarterback, its entire offensive line, its star tailback, and almost all of its top receivers. On the other side of the ball, Cornell had the two best outside linebackers in the league, a solid secondary, and a staunch defensive line.

With that talent coming back, you had to think that Ivy wins over Dartmouth, Columbia, Brown and Princeton were possible, if not probable. And if lucky, maybe Cornell would knock off one of the league’s elite teams — Penn, Harvard, and Yale.

But then, the injury bug hit. The players started falling like flies. Junior linebacker Joel Sussman was lost for the year before the season even began, senior wide receiver Chad Nice was hurt on the opening kickoff of 2003, and other key players including quarterback Mick Razzano, running backs Josh Johnston and Marcus Blanks, and a host of others have spent significant time in the trainer’s room.

Surely the injuries have hurt, and it would’ve been a lot to ask of the football team to match the preseason expectations. But as coaches and players always like to say, when one player goes down with an injury, someone else has to step in — injuries can’t be used as an excuse. If that’s the case, then the team hasn’t performed and has no excuse for its unseemly 1-8 record.

After covering the team for two years, I’ve come to one very important conclusion. Head coach Tim Pendergast and his players are some of the nicest and most media-friendly personalities on campus. Guys like seniors Neil Morrissey, Kevin Rooney, and Mick Razzano are a pleasure to interview, and Pendergast is always stand-up, even in defeat.

But there are times when the Red just doesn’t look ready to play. Unfortunately, it’s happened one too many times this season. Cornell failed to show up in the first half against Colgate, Harvard, Georgetown, Brown, and Princeton — all losses. You just can’t tank a half and expect to win, even if you’re the nicest guys in the league.

Effort aside, the playcalling has also been questionable at best. Look, I know that it’s hard to run a full complement of plays when players are shuffling in and out of the lineup. But if I can fairly accurately predict the ensuing play based just on the pre-snap look, there’s a problem. Four-receiver set, quick five-yard slant to the slot receiver … I think I’ve seen that play one too many times this season. And if I can see it, I’m pretty sure opposing defensive coordinators can see it, too. There are certain plays that I prefer when I’m at home pounding away at Madden 2004 on my Playstation 2. But after awhile, the CPU catches on and won’t let me run my QB Waggle or my HB Counter anymore. Catch my drift?

Pendergast has had three full seasons at the helm of Cornell football. And I, unlike many of the grumbling alums, am willing to treat this season as a mulligan. But he will have had four full recruiting classes by next season, with his hand-picked players growing up in his system. Like it or not, the 2003 season was a wash, but more will be expected of the Red in 2004. A repeat of this season just won’t be acceptable.

Archived article by Alex Ip