November 9, 2006

Youth Drives Football

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After a humbling, 33-23, loss to Harvard on Oct. 7, talk surrounding the football team harped on the play of the team’s inexperienced youth. The general consensus was that the team was struggling because of its young players at skill positions such as quarterback, running back and wide receiver. Fast-forward one month, three wins and 108 points scored, and talk surrounding the squad still focuses in on the team’s young core of players. However, this time, it’s about how much of an impact the talented group has had in helping the Red crawl back to .500.

Last season, the Red knew it had something special to look forward to when sophomore tailback Shane Kilcoyne and second-year safety Tim Bax both took home Ivy League Rookie of the Week honors, helping the Red to a three-game win streak to end the season. Better yet, sophomore quarterback Nathan Ford showed flashes of greatness during spot duty when filling in for the All-Ivy selection Ryan Kuhn ’06. While all three players have become fixtures in the Red’s starting-22 this season, two players that have won Rookie of the Week honors this year have become immediate threats without the allotted grace period.

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Meet freshmen Stephen Liuzza and Bryan Walters — two players that haven’t yet even reached their 20th birthdays, yet have already made their marks on the Cornell record books.

“They’ve really stepped up and made a contribution to the team,” said senior wideout Anthony Jackson, who has served as a mentor for the two. “We’ve always had people step up, but for them to really be ready to play has been great. Especially at a position [wide receiver] where we’re kind of thin.”

Liuzza, a backup quarterback, earned his Ivy honor last week after scoring his first career touchdown in dramatic fashion, breaking open last Saturday’s 28-25 win over Dartmouth with an 81-yard touchdown run in the second quarter. The run was the longest rush by a Cornell quarterback in school history. It was also the longest rushing play in an Ivy contest since 2002.

“All I had to do was really make one cut and find the hole,” Liuzza said. “I was off to the races after that. We had some great blocks last week. I was just trying to do my job, hope for the best and luckily I was able to beat a few people.”

With Liuzza’s added touches, head coach Jim Knowles ‘87 is faced with the task of trying to get the Louisiana native on the field without taking away from the talent that Ford brings to the team. One solution the coaching staff has tinkered with is lining up the speedy Liuzza at wide receiver, making him a prime target for end arounds and quick outs.

“We try to mix them up a little bit and throw [the opposition] off,” said Liuzza of when he and Ford are on the field at the same time. “It’s fun because everyone loves seeing something new. I’m not primarily a receiver so I have to learn the techniques a little bit.”

While Liuzza was rewarded for his performance last Saturday inside the friendly confines of Schoellkopf Field, it was fellow freshman Bryan Walters that earned the squad’s first Ivy Rookie of the Week honor for his showing in the squad’s loss against Harvard. Although the Red left Cambridge, Mass., with little more than a humbled feeling in its stomach, one positive it did draw away from that game was Walters’ 173 all-purpose yards in action on special teams and at wideout. He also recovered an onside kick late in the game that gave the Red hope of a possible comeback.

“It was just a blast being out there,” Walters said. “It’s everything you work for as a young player. The adrenaline and everything was just amazing. I was just happy to go out there and make some plays.”

Ever since that game at Harvard Stadium, Walters has taken over as the team’s primary return man, averaging just over 10 yards per punt return and 22 yards per kick return. The totals have helped earn second place on the squad with 551 all-purpose yards.

“We knew Bryan was going to be a great returner from watching him in high school,” Knowles said. “He was banged up a little at the beginning of the year, but when he’s healthy, we know he is capable of those things.”

One thing that is clear is that as the team continues to get the ball in Liuzza’s and Walters’ hands, only good things are happening. As the coach affirms, this forces the Red to smile when thoughts of next season arise.

“Every successful play is money in the bank for these guys in terms of looking towards the future,” he said.