After winning three our of its last four games to end the 2004 season, the football team entered the 2005 campaign with high expectations. With one year under his belt, Jim Knowles ’87 returned for round two as head coach of the Red, looking to maintain a strong defensive unit and improve on an offense that sputtered at times during Knowles’ first season. After engineering the greatest turnaround in Ivy League history in 2004, Knowles and his staff had the daunting task of avoiding a sophomore slump and taking the second step towards a league championship.
Ten games later, it’s safe to say that the mission has been accomplished. Even though the squad only finished tied for fourth in the league standings, its 6-4 overall record was the team’s best mark since 1999, and a two-game improvement over last year. In addition to victories over non-conference opponents Bucknell and Georgetown, the Red captured wins over Ivy rivals Harvard, Dartmouth, Columbia, and Penn.
The leap the program has taken over the past season begins and ends with the rejuvenation of the Red offense – more specifically with the success of the running game. Cornell finished the year ranked first in the league in rushing yards, averaging 248.6 yards per game – while only one other team posted more than 200 per contest. The bulk of the load was carried by sophomore tailback Luke Siwula and senior quarterback Ryan Kuhn, who became only the second tandem in Ivy history to each gain over 1,000 yards on the ground in the same season.
“Last year, [the offense] was the weak link on the team and we set out this offseason to improve it,” Kuhn said. “The coaches did a great job putting in a system that played to my strengths and the strengths of everyone else on the team.”
The running game was based around an option attack, which gave Kuhn the opportunity to change the play at the line of scrimmage. The misdirection proved difficult for opposing defenses to adjust to, as the Red’s offensive line, despite its inexperience, was able dominate the line of scrimmage.
On the defensive side of the ball, Cornell ranked second in the league in scoring, allowing only 18 points a game. After leading the league a year ago in rush defense, allowing just over 100 yards per contest, the team lowered its average to 88.3.
“I think it’s having a year of experience in this system under our belts,” said senior safety Kevin Rex. “Last year, having it be a whole new system, there were times when we made mistakes and gave up little bit – obviously we didn’t give up too much, we were still pretty stout up front. I think just having that experience coming in [was an advantage].”
In terms of the pass defense, the team was somewhat scrutinized in its ability to stop big plays due to its aggressive style of play. However, as the year wore on, Knowles pulled back on his blitzing schemes, and the squad finished second in the league in pass yards allowed with 173.
“I think we realized that our pass defense was one of our weaknesses,” Rex said. “It was something we needed to work on. Guys took a lot of ride in putting in extra time in. Our cornerbacks stayed after practice every single day. They worked on their hands on the line of scrimmage when they press receivers; they worked on covering the deep ball because that was something that hurt us early on. I think as the season wore on they definitely got better at that.”
All in all, the team took a large step forward in 2005. Even though the Red will lose several key seniors, the squad looks poised to make a run at the Ivy championship next season.
Archived article by Bryan Pepper
Sun Assistant Sports Editor