For a squad aiming to leave the disastrous memories of a 1-9 season behind, the Cornell football team will have the weight of the world on its shoulders tomorrow. A new system, a new look and a new attitude has produced sprinkled moments of glory, but the Red (1-3, 1-1 Ivy) remains on the hunt for consistency and that elusive second victory. And, after its rebirth in January with the arrival of head coach Jim Knowles ’87, it’s apparent the football team is feeling the soreness of its early-season growing pains.
“What I’ve been saying is that the team is a little like my nine-year old daughter trying to be 18,” Knowles said. “We’re trying to grow up fast. We’re not making stupid mistakes — just growing pains.”
Tomorrow’s homecoming match-up against the No. 20 Colgate Raiders at Schoellkopf Field will be like graduation day for the emergent squad — it will force the team to grow up very fast. The defending Div. I-AA national runner-up Raiders (3-2, 1-0 Patriot League) have won 24 of their last 27 games — including victories in 20 of their last 22 meetings against Ivy League opponents. Furthermore, Colgate has not lost to the Red in the teams’ last eight meetings.
“It’s not going to be different than any other game we’ve played,” Knowles said. “But, where we’re at, we need to do everything right.”
Cornell is desperate to end its two-game losing skid and return to the fundamentals which produced its lone victory of the season over Yale.
Fortunately, two key components of that win — the friendly confines of Schoellkopf Field and a substantial home crowd in attendance — are expected to figure again prominently in the Red’s performance tomorrow. Not to mention an overwhelming desire to avoid last year’s one-win debacle.
“This is a vital win for us,” said junior tailback Andre Hardaway. “It’s very important for us to perform well in front of our home crowd.”
However, a few major obstacles stand in the Red’s way of staying unbeaten at home in 2004. Colgate senior tailback Jamaal Branch, the defending Walter Payton Award winner (given to the nation’s outstanding Div. I-AA player) and the preseason Patriot League offensive player of the year, will be yet another ferociously talented ball carrier Cornell’s defense will have to contend with.
In 2003, Branch set Div I-AA records for most yards gained in a season (2,326), most rushing touchdowns in a single season (29) and most games rushing for 100 yards or more (12). This season, the Mashpee, Mass. native is averaging 114.2 yards on the ground per game — including a 181-yard effort in the Raiders’ victory over Princeton last Saturday.
“I think our team as a defense has had success shutting down the run,” said junior free safety Kevin Rex. “Everybody has to step up and raise their game a little more.”
The Red has enjoyed tremendous success shutting down top opposing running backs this season. Two of the nation’s top rushers, Yale’s Robert Carr and Harvard’s Clifton Dawson, were rendered virtually invisible by Cornell’s smothering defensive unit. Both Carr and Dawson entered their contests with the Red among the nation’s leaders in rushing yardage (both averaged over 150 yards per game), yet neither was able to accumulate more than 65 yards on the ground against Cornell.
“We have to stop Branch,” Knowles said. “My philosophy on defense is we have to stop the run.”
Unfortunately, the Red’s defense received a huge blow this week after it was announced that starting “whip” safety and All-Ivy junior Joel Sussman will be lost for the rest of the year due to an ankle injury suffered against Harvard.
Sussman, an early-season Ivy League Player of the Week, had posted 31 total tackles in addition to blocking four field goals. To make up for the loss, Rex will be moved into the “whip” slot and senior Nate Tarsi will take over the free safety spot.
“I’m a little nervous,” Rex said. “But Joel has been a big help for me to learn the position.”
The Red will also be watching Colgate’s formidable tandem of quarterback Chris Brown and wide receiver Luke Graham. Brown is averaging 180.2 passing yards per game in 2004 and has thrown for eight touchdowns thus far — four of them to Graham. The senior out of Rockledge, Fla. has a 21-3 career record as a starter.
Graham currently leads the Patriot League with 26 receptions for 308 yards, an average of 11.8 yards per catch. The senior has caught a pass in 35 consecutive games and currently ranks third in the nation among active receivers with 177 career receptions.
“We need to take our chances in the pass game,” Knowles said. “We have to do some things to keep the quarterback in the pocket.”
Last year, Cornell dropped a heartbreaker to the Raiders, losing 27-24 on a Colgate field goal as time expired. Branch recorded two rushing touchdowns and Brown ran for another in the Raiders’ victory.
Archived article by Kyle Sheahen
Sun Assistant Sports Editor