With a BCS berth out of the question and Penn and Harvard both undefeated and tied for the lead in the Ivy League, tomorrow’s game between New York rivals Cornell and Columbia has all the luster of a Friday night in the library. But, while some may paint the matchup as merely a means to the end of another season, Cornell head coach Jim Knowles ’87 and his players see it as an opportunity to achieve a goal few critics and fans gave them a chance to accomplish this fall: earning wins and respect in the Ancient Eight.
For the first time since 2000, the Red (3-5, 3-2 Ivy) has a positive record in league play and a chance to finish its season solidly among the top three teams in the Ivies. Tomorrow, when the gridders face the Lions (1-7, 1-4 Ivy) at Wien Stadium in New York City, Cornell will put that mark on the line. The Lions, on the other hand, will attempt to salvage a season gone awry.
“We’re calling this our championship weekend, because at some point, we’re building toward a championship,” Knowles said. “To go from zero wins in the league to a winning Ivy record is a big step.”
Columbia won last year’s intra-state grudge match, 34-21, at Schoellkopf Field, but the tables have turned for both teams this time around. Cornell is riding high following its first back-to-back wins in two years, and the team is hungry to extend that streak to three in a row. The Lions, meanwhile, come off a 38-0 blanking at the hands of Harvard and have failed to score a touchdown in three of their last four outings.
Nonetheless, the winner of tomorrow’s game will likely have to fight tooth-and-nail for every yard, as both squads have had their fair shares of close calls. Two weeks ago, a blocked extra point proved to be the difference maker in the Red’s 21-20 victory over Princeton, while two 50-yard touchdowns broke a sloppy stalemate in Cornell’s win against Dartmouth last Saturday. Columbia’s schedule, likewise, includes a one-point overtime loss to the Tigers and 14-21 nail-biter at Yale, which saw the Lions’ go-ahead score get tipped away in the end zone with 37 seconds left to play.
“It’s [head coach Bob Shoop’s] second year. They had a good record (4-6, 3-4 Ivy) his first year, and I think they’ll feel like their backs are against the wall,” Knowles said. “Their coaches have helped them stay close and play strong, and the matchups are pretty even. They have a tall tight end, good receivers, and they’re hard on defense.”
Likewise, Shoop anticipates the game will be a shootout between two teams with comparable abilities and styles.
“Jim [Knowles] has done a great job, and their team has a lot of energy and enthusiasm. I’m impressed with the turnaround,” he said. “Our formulas are similar — play well on defense and don’t give up the big plays, and execute on offense.”
The key to victory for both teams will be offensive production. Against Dartmouth, the Red amassed a paltry 16 yards rushing on 40 carries and only 223 yards of offense altogether. Worse, Columbia has managed to put up only three points in the first quarter and 26 total in the first half all season.
“We’ve got to run the ball,” Knowles said. “I’ve challenged the offensive line all week.
“We’ve played pretty good defense to keep us in games, but haven’t executed in the red zone. Obviously, the goal is to come away with seven points, but we’re not getting seven points. Often, we’re not getting three points — our field goal kicking has been a problem all year,” Shoop said. “We have to try to be mistake-free and get to third-and-manageable.”
Conversely, stalwart defense has been the bread and butter for both teams. Cornell currently leads the Ivy League in rushing defense, allowing an average of 106.8 yards per game, while Columbia’s Finnish defensive lineman, Michael Quarshie set an NCAA record with eight tackles-for-loss against Fordham. The senior has 13.5 on the year, placing him among the nation’s best in that category.
The polarity of each teams’ offensive and defensive units may result in a game reliant on big plays to put points on the board.
After last year’s 1-9 (0-7 Ivy) campaign, few pollsters, fans, and perhaps even players gave Cornell a shot at doing much at all — let alone digging deep to find a way to win. Now the Red finds itself competing for sole possession of a third-place finish.
More importantly, however, the penultimate collegiate contest of the season offers seniors on both teams an opportunity to leave their playing days not with forlorn memories of what could have been but, rather, fond recollections of a hard-earned win.
“We’ve focused on giving the seniors something to be proud of when they leave,” Knowles said. “This game is especially important to them because it can guarantee a winning record in the Ivy League.”
Archived article by Everett Hullverson
Sun Assistant Sports Editor