September 28, 2006

Football Changes Practice Scheme

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In order to make history Saturday night, all the football team has to do is show up. With kickoff scheduled for 7 p.m., the Red will participate in the first night game ever held in Schoellkopf Stadium.

However, Cornell (0-2, 0-1 Ivy) will be looking for a more important first underneath the Saturday night lights — its first touchdown of the 2006 season.

Although the Red’s offensive unit ranks No. 8 nationally in total offense among Division I-AA teams, Cornell stands at No. 113-out-of-116 programs in scoring with an average of 7.0 points per game — a stat that reflects the red zone troubles that have plagued the team in its first two games.

“It really just comes down to, when you’re inside the red zone you can’t tighten up, you still have to play loose,” said senior tri-captain Anthony Macaluso. “You have to focus on what the task at hand is — to score points. Obviously, it’s never really bad to get points on the board, but we want touchdowns. Field goals are all right, but that’s the difference in the game.”

Getting to the red zone has not been a problem for the Red’s offense, which has wracked up 410.5 yards per game behind sophomore quarterback Nathan Ford. Ford is averaging 187.5 yards passing and 70.0 yards rushing in his first two collegiate starts. Junior tailback Luke Siwula and sophomore Shane Kilcoyne are also averaging better than 50 rushing yards per game.

However, in a total of eight visits to the red zone this season, the only scoring the Red has produced is four field goals from junior place kicker Peter Zell. One attempt against Bucknell on Sept. 16 ended when a pass from Ford was intercepted in the end zone. The first time Cornell crossed the 20-yard line against Yale, the Bulldogs’ defense forced Ford into a fumble on the 1-yard line.

[img_assist|nid=18626|title=Built Ford tough|desc=Sophomore quarterback Nathan Ford (17) runs with the ball in last weekend’s 21-9 loss at Schoellkopf Field.|link=popup|align=left|width=100|height=93]

“It’s frustrating, but we know the potential’s there,” Macaluso said. “It’s a cause for concern, obviously, but we still feel confident because we know that we can move the ball and be productive on offense.”

To find a way to translate production on the field into points on the scoreboard, head coach Jim Knowles ’87 has taken a different approach to practice this week.

“We’ve been doing a lot more work in the red zone. We’ve been doing a lot more of best versus best,” he said. “Most of the time during the year you work against a scout team of younger guys, but we’re trying to go against each other just to improve the level of competition in practice.”

Taking the practice atmosphere up a level has helped the offense hone in on executing details.

“When it gets down to the red zone, every mistake is magnified because the field is that much shorter,” Macaluso said. “[We are] just really focusing on the little things — focusing on simple things like catching the ball, hand-offs, making the right reads — just so that when we’re down in the red zone we feel as confident as possible.”

Another hindrance for the attack has been the fact that, due to many underclassmen seeing a great deal of playing time, a majority of the offensive unit doesn’t have past varsity experience to look to for confidence. However, Knowles thinks it’s just a matter of time until Ford, Kilcoyne and sophomore wide receivers Zac Canty and Jesse Baker find a way to succeed.

“We try to put as little pressure [on them] as possible and try to get them just to play because we think they’re good,” Knowles said. “But there’s no way to hold back from the real battles that are taking place because there’s just no time in our schedule. … As a youthful team, we’re finding it’s taking us a little longer. But we don’t really talk about it because it’s not an excuse for us. We think we have good players and we know that they’ll show up.”

The faith in his players’ abilities, combined with the statistics they’ve already produced, makes Knowles a believer that the Red is on the cusp of breaking out of its early offensive slump.

“I really think our offense is going to explode,” he said. “It’s just like sawing at a tree — we’re right there on the edge, you just never know when that thing is going to topple through. And I just think they need to get a little confidence under their belts, get a couple of scores, and everything will be all right.”