The offseason for the Cornell football team must have felt like an eternity. The last time we saw the Red, the team had just completed a 16-7 road victory over perennial Ivy League powerhouse Penn, avenging a 59-7 loss at the same venue two years prior.
After the game, it was an emotional scene at Franklin Field. Cornell had just completed a turnaround from laughingstock to contender in just two years under head coach Jim Knowles ’87, and it was basking in a raucous applause from the small but loud contingent of Red fans that had made the trip to Philadelphia.
The first step had been completed. The Cornell football team would no longer be viewed as a pushover or an easy game on the schedule. Respectability had been achieved. But, an even more daunting task awaits this group — a task no Cornell team has accomplished since 1990. Only time will tell if the Red will capture the Ivy League championship this season. By mid-November we’ll know. But for now, tomorrow night’s opener against Bucknell (1-1, 0-1 Patriot), the first glimpse we’ll have at this year’s squad, seems exciting enough.
The Red’s season-opening game in Lewisburg, Pa., will also serve as the first start for sophomore quarterback Nathan Ford, a player that should play an integral role for the Red over the next few seasons. Ford was impressive in four contests as a reserve last year, completing 14 passes on 25 attempts for 132 yards. He will replace first team All-Ivy quarterback Ryan Kuhn ’06, who eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark in rushing last season. Ford should provide an upgrade to the passing game, as Kuhn attempted only 179 passes in 2005.
“Nathan can do a lot of things, but with any young quarterback, you want to grow,” Knowles said. “You want to start small and continue to get better and better and better. We want to make his options simple and let his talent come out.”
Ford will not have to do it alone. He will have a whole lot of help on offense with the return of junior tailback Luke Siwula, a first team All-Ivy selection last season. Siwula ran for 1,086 yards in 2005, and will look to build on his breakout season.
“You can expect a heavy dose of Siwula every game,” Knowles said. “Things just change when he’s in there. All of the running plays look a lot different when he’s in there. So you’re going to see a lot of him and I think that will take a lot of pressure off of Nate.”
Even though Knowles plans to use Siwula liberally tomorrow night, the Cornell offensive attack should be more balanced with Ford under center. Last season, the Red had a whopping 570 rushing attempts, compared to only 207 passes.
“We’ve made a hard move to get into our passing game only because we were so far overboard on the running side,” Knowles said. “We still expect Nathan to make plays with his feet, just to make a few more with his arm.”
Knowles plans to create easy passing opportunities for Ford by giving him simple reads to his tight ends and running backs. Bucknell can also expect a fair amount of play action, adding to the Red’s misdirection-based offensive attack.
“The playbook has a lot more play action,” Knowles said. “We are trying to move more towards a mode of what you see Peyton Manning do with the Colts. He is one of the best at play action. We studied a lot of what he does. Of course, we do it off of the shotgun.”
The Bison began its season with a 31-28 overtime victory over Duquesne, followed by a 31-0 loss at the hands of Lafayette.
The defense, which features first-year starters at several key positions, has given up 1,002 yards in two games. It is led by senior co-captain linebacker Dorian Petersen, who has collected 25 tackles so far this year, including 16 last week.
On offense, Bucknell runs an option-style attack that is very different from any other the Red will face this season.
After gaining over 400 yards against the Dukes, including 386 on the ground, the Bison were held to only 218 last week and were shut out for the first time in four seasons.
The offense is based primarily on the rushing attack, however freshman fullback Paul Forcellini went down with a season-ending knee injury in the fourth quarter last Saturday. He was sharing carries with junior Paul DeStefano, who led the squad with 55 yards on the ground against the Leopards.
“It’s an option offense. We only see it once a year,” Knowles said. “You have to do less blitzing and be more assignment sound and pursue the football. We’ve been on it for the last two weeks, and I think that’s an advantage for us. I expect our defense to play well. We need to stop the big plays. They lull you to sleep with run, run, run, run, run, nine-out-of-10 times, and then throw the ball. We have to keep deep-ball security and be a real assignment sound up front.”
The offensive attack run by Bucknell is not all that different than Cornell’s, giving Knowles and the coaching staff a distinct advantage in preparation.
“We think it’s going to help us a lot,” Knowles said. “More and more teams are trying to what we do on offense. We’re around it all time. In order to play against our offense in practice, you have to be very assignment sound.”
Tomorrow night’s game will be the 46th in the series between these two teams, with the Red holding a 35-10 advantage.
Cornell won last year’s opener against the Bison, 24-7, however, it has lost three in a row in Lewisburg, Pa.