Through the first two games of the season, the football team’s offense was struggling. Despite moving the ball consistently against both Bucknell and Yale, the Red was able to muster only 14 total points, as mistakes in the red zone continued to thwart the team’s scoring chances.
Six weeks later, the questions surrounding the Red’s offense have disappeared thanks to another strong outing against Dartmouth (1-7, 1-4 Ivy). Cornell (4-4, 2-3) put up 28 more points on Saturday, raising its scoring average to over 22 in its last six games.
[img_assist|nid=19641|title=Victory cheer|desc=Head coach Jim Knowles ’87 and the football team celebrate on Schoellkopf Field after defeating Dartmouth, 28-25, on Saturday afternoon.|link=popup|align=left|width=100|height=73]
While the running game has remained consistent behind junior tailback Luke Siwula, the main difference is the development of not one, but two young quarterbacks. Sophomore Nathan Ford, who had not made a collegiate start prior to this season, has drastically improved his decision-making, using both his arm and his legs to spark the offense.
Somewhat surprising, however, is the impact being made by freshman Stephen Liuzza. While he has played only sporadically throughout the season, lining up anywhere from under center to the slot, Liuzza certainly brings another element to the Cornell offense.
“I’ve been on the offensive coaches all year — get [Liuzza] the ball, let him play a little bit,” said head coach Jim Knowles ’87. “We’re perfectly happy with Nathan — he’s a great leader. But Stephen brings another dimension, another weapon.”
Against the Green, Liuzza displayed a little bit of his versatility, carrying the ball four times for 91 yards. However, 81 of them came on the first play of the second quarter, when the freshman took a handoff from Ford on the Red’s 19-yard line, and scampered all the way to the end zone, extending Cornell’s lead to 21-3.
“We want to be able to run the ball with him. We want to be able to throw the ball to him. We want to be able to present two quarterbacks on the field at anytime, so we can do all the trick and gadgets that come off of that,” Knowles said.
Liuzza should see more playing time as the year progresses, as he continues to adapt to a slightly different role. In high school, Liuzza passed for 3,874 yards and 33 touchdowns, yet at Cornell, he remains behind Ford on the depth chart. However, the Red can ill afford to keep him on the sideline.
“He adds a ton of athleticism,” Ford said. “He’s just so quick and can make so many guys miss, and get the edge and run 80 yards for a touchdown as you saw today. He’s such a threat. Whenever he lines up in the slot, they were always screaming, ‘Watch the quarterback, watch the pass.’ I think its really messes with the defense.”
As for Ford, he has begun to develop a comfort level with the option-based offense, and has gradually become a serious threat with his legs. On Saturday, the sophomore ran for 80 yards on 16 attempts, including a pair of rushing touchdowns. He now ranks second on the team with 294 yards on the ground.
Ford’s second score of the game was one of the most memorable of the season. At the beginning of the fourth quarter, with the Red’s lead standing at 21-10, the Cornell offense was faced with a third-and-goal at the Dartmouth 1-yard line. Expecting a plunge by Siwula, Ford faked the handoff and ran a wide-open naked bootleg into the corner of the end zone.
“It was just a great play, a great call, great execution,” Ford said. “It took me forever to learn the fundamentals and techniques on that play. I was screwing it up in practice all week, but I finally got it down and it definitely paid off.”
Ford added another 96 yards through the air, including a 23-yard touchdown pass to Siwula to open the scoring in the first quarter. While he only had 10 attempts, Ford completed seven of them, doing just enough the keep the Dartmouth defense off-balance.
But it was his legs once again that sealed the victory for Cornell. After a Green touchdown made the score 28-25 late in the fourth quarter, the Red received the ball with under five minutes to play, looking to run out the clock. Faced with a fourth-and-1 on the Dartmouth 36, Ford scrambled for four yards and a crucial first down.
“It was actually just a roll-out pass. We had the slot receiver running a little 3-yard out, hoping to just out-leverage them,” Ford said. “But they played it well. The flat defender got to it real fast. I just had to run it and try to get that one yard.”
Two plays later, Ford converted on a third-and-3, rushing for five yards and putting an end to a potential Green rally.
It was a fitting end to a fantastic game from the Red quarterback. When asked if he enjoyed getting more touches in the running game, Ford displayed no preference.
“More importantly, I just like to win,” Ford said. “Luke can run the ball obviously better than I can. If he gets all the carries, that’s awesome and he’ll do a great job. Today, they were just taking away Luke on the options, and we just found a weakness.”