September 28, 2005

Knowles Should Review Options

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Senior quarterback Ryan Kuhn was on cloud nine. He had just rushed for a career-high 151 yards and two touchdowns – becoming the first Cornell quarterback to compile that many yards on the ground in over four decades. He was named the Ivy League Offensive Player of the Week in his very first collegiate game as the full-time starter. And most importantly, his Cornell team had just smacked Bucknell in the mouth, en route to a convincing 24-7 victory – beginning its quest to shove the Red’s fifth-place preseason ranking right back into the Ivy media’s face.

Just one week later, Kuhn may be out of a job. After what can only be described as an abysmal Saturday afternoon at the Yale Bowl, in which Kuhn was picked off three times in the first half, head coach Jim Knowles ’87 seems to have a quarterback controversy on his hands.

Late in the third quarter of Saturday’s game, Knowles pulled Kuhn in favor of freshman Nathan Ford. An accomplished passer (he threw for over 6,300 yards in high school), Ford led the Red on back-to-back scoring drives and jump-started an offensive attack that was stagnant up until his entrance. Although he seemed a little anxious – overthrowing a few of his receivers – the freshman looked much more comfortable in the pocket and finished the day 10-of-17 passing for 112 yards, compared to Kuhn’s 9-of-23 passing and 90 yards – in 1/4 of the playing time.

During training camp, Kuhn was not even challenged for the starter’s job. Out of the six quarterbacks on the Cornell roster, he is the only one that had logged any game experience heading into the season. However, there were questions raised as to whether Kuhn could throw effectively enough to keep opponents from putting eight in the box against the Red running game. Last season, Kuhn started only three games, in what was a platoon for much of the year with D.J. Busch ’05. Busch was a prototypical drop-back quarterback with an absolute cannon for an arm, while Kuhn was a much more dangerous runner.

Cornell’s passing game a year ago was predicated on straight quarterback drops, despite a weak offensive line that surrendered 27 sacks in 10 games. In order to give the front-five a better chance at success, Knowles redesigned the offensive scheme to fit his personnel – with the quarterback position as the focal point.

The new playbook has striking similarities to that of the wishbone, and more specifically, to current Florida head coach Urban Meyer’s spread option. Meyer’s 12-0 Utah team, which won the Fiesta Bowl last season, lined up almost exclusively in shotgun, with players shifting and motioning on nearly every play. The quarterback would read the defense and either hand off to the tailback or keep it himself, depending on the opponent’s pre-snap formation. There is also a “triple option” in which the quarterback runs along the line and either pitches to the motion receiver, the halfback out wide, or keeps it himself. The goal is to pin defenders in the middle of the field and leave one man unblocked on the outside, who has to decide to attack either the quarterback or the running back.

The spread option also features a passing game, which takes advantage of short, high-percentage throws, to keep the defense honest. However, the most important part of running the scheme effectively is having a quarterback who can make the appropriate decisions and handle the hits he will receive from opposing defenses.

Former Utah signal-caller Alex Smith (now with the 49ers) was perfect for this kind of scheme, thanks to his 6-4, 212-pound frame and elusive running ability. Ditto for Florida’s Chris Leak, who is somewhat smaller than Smith, but is much quicker to the point of attack.

Judging by his performance in the opener against Bucknell, Kuhn can definitely handle the running aspect of Knowles’ offense, which relies heavily on quick decisions by the quarterback. At 6-4 and 238-pounds, Kuhn is an absolute nightmare for defenses to bring to the ground. With his size and scrambling ability, he can be a legitimate threat with his legs – as evidenced by his effort against the Bison.

However, when Kuhn faced off against a much more imposing Yale defensive unit, he was shut down – limited to just 23 rushing yards on 16 carries. Knowles’ offensive scheme cannot be effective when his quarterback provides no real threat of a vertical passing game.

That’s where Ford comes in. Plain and simple, this guy can throw the football. He came into the game on Saturday and starting throwing darts all over the field. The reason why Meyer’s offense has been successful in recent years is that both Smith and Leak have been able to provide stability in the passing game – something Ford can definitely contribute to the Red’s offense.

Yet, I do not think Ford’s 6-1 and 197-pound frame can withstand nine more games of punishment from opposing defenses – something that comes along with Knowles’ system. Kuhn is physically more suited for this type of offense, however, his lack of a consistent passing threat renders his running ability virtually useless. Knowles needs to tweak his gameplan and feature more passing situations to utilize Ford’s strengths.

Knowles discussed in Saturday’s post-game press conference about playing a combination of Kuhn and Ford for the rest of the season – in the same way he platooned Kuhn and Busch last year. However, there is absolutely no way an offense can maintain any sort of unpredictability, or consistency for that matter, if two different quarterbacks are being shuffled in and out. Opposing defenses can key in on the run against Kuhn and focus on the pass against Ford. The quarterback position instead must be the stabilizing force on the offensive unit – providing direction and leadership for the rest of the players. This is especially true in an offense where the quarterback’s decision-making is so heavily relied upon.

If the Red want to run an option-style offensive attack, then Kuhn should be given another chance to show what he can do. If the team wants to increase the potency of its passing game, then Ford is the guy. Choosing both is not an option that Knowles has available to him and a decision must be made starting this Saturday against Colgate.

Taking a look to professional football, the New York Giants won only a single game last year with rookie quarterback Eli Manning in the starting lineup. However, the team has been able to get off to a fast start this season due to the experience Manning gained on the field. That’s why I think Knowles should go with the younger guy. While I like Kuhn’s ability outside of the pocket, Ford is the quarterback of the future. He is going to be the starter for the next four years – well after Kuhn is gone. Knowles has to start thinking about next year right now. Even though it is a tough decision to sit a senior that has waited three years for his chance, it is a decision that has to be made.

Bryan Pepper is a Sun Assistant Sports Editor. Raising the Apple will appear every other Wednesday this semester.

Archived article by Bryan Pepper