September 17, 2007

Screen Passes to Start, Downfield to Finish

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Cornell football head coach Jim Knowles ’87 turned to his running back, senior Luke Siwula.
“You even caught a pass didn’t you?”
“Yeah,” Siwula said quietly.
“Sixteen yards: good job.”
For a player with 29 career receptions in 26 games, catching one ball in a game isn’t that out of the ordinary. What impressed Knowles was he could have said the same thing to a dozen different players on the Red (1-0).
“The distribution was awesome,” Knowles said.
Twelve different players caught passes Saturday night against Bucknell (1-2) in Cornell’s 38-14 victory. There were 48 passing attempts between junior starter Nathan Ford and sophomore backup Ben Ganter — 33 completions, 31 from Ford — in 60 minutes from an offense that usually runs the ball into the ground.
Knowles said he wanted to unveil an offense that would keep fans coming back. The bevy of slants, screens, post routes, dump-offs to the running backs, deep passes down the sidelines and short passes to the tight end certainly did just that Saturday night. It also backed up Knowles’ and his player’s statements speaking to the speed, depth and versatility of this season’s wide receiver corps.
Saturday night, the Red took the ball on its first drive and immediately started spreading out four or five receivers on most downs — occasionally not even lining up a tailback with Ford in the backfield — something that would have not been seen the last three years under Knowles.
“Our philosophy going into the game with the offense is a short passing attack early to be able to get [the opposing team] to spread out … get it out on the perimeter, let our guys do something — you know — kind of make them miss,” Knowles said.
Time and time again in the first half, the Red lined up its four- or five-receiver sets and sent short passes in the direction of sophomore Stephen Liuzza and junior Shane Kilcoyne.
Kilcoyne was a multi-dimensional threat, catching four balls (for 26 yards), and carrying it three times, each carry coming in a different fashion. On one carry, he burst through the hole on a hesitation hand off, stuttered and danced around a diving tackler, before getting pulled down at the Bucknell 1-yard line, setting up a touchdown. On another, he took the hand off from sophomore running back Randy Barbour on a double reverse around the left end.
His four catches came in less varied a fashion than his rushes, but were as effective as his 25 rushing yards in establishing the offense.
“[We went to the short passes] to get Nate in a rhythm and get our offense to move, force them to spread out so we can run,” Knowles said. “And it worked so well it forced their defense to react.”
Kilcoyne caught a ball cutting across the middle into the cushion of the defense, using a block from sophomore receiver Bryan Walters to get down to the Bucknell 1 again, setting up another score. He caught a couple of balls on screen passes out of the four- and five-receiver formations, and another on a dump-off from Ford.
Liuzza, who backed up Ford last year, was also instrumental in Knowles early game plan, catching six first-half passes for 78 yards. Knowles pointed to Liuzza and Kilcoyne as his two main perimeter “guys” that he uses in the first half. Screen pass after screen pass went to Liuzza — on first, second and third down.
“Stephen Liuzza … moving him from quarterback to receiver, that worked out fantastically,” Knowles said.
After 30 minutes, though, the look of the offense changed with the Red leading 17-7. Liuzza had only one second-half reception, while Kilcoyne was done for the day statistically. With the Bison defense trying to jam the receivers at the line to defend the dump-off and screen pass, the coaching staff stretched the field, looking to last season’s 1-2 punch of juniors Zac Canty and Jesse Baker, return specialist sophomore Bryan Walters and junior tight end Alex Spooner.
Out of the tunnel, the first pass went to Spooner, the second to Canty (essentially the first time he had been thrown to all night), the third to Walters, then to Spooner again.
Just as it was becoming clear the Red was opening the field up, Ford was flushed out of the pocket to his left, spinning out of an oncoming pass rusher. With his shoulder pad flapping, he squared up his body and hit Canty downfield for a 21-yard completion that moved the ball deep into Bison territory. A couple of Siwula runs and a Ford keeper to convert a fourth-and-one set up yet another Red rushing tally, making the score 31-7.
“[The short passing] gets them to suck up and commit to that more, allowing us to be able to throw it deeper,” Knowles said.
“I love it,” Ford said about the new offense, again going back to the rhetoric shared by coaches and players alike after the game, citing the numerous playmakers he believes the Red has.
As the second half progressed, Ford’s main playmaker turned out to be Spooner, at first on shorter routes, but then on a pass deep down the middle for 19 yards. Spooner finished with five catches for 43 yards.
“Hey, we had a tight end catch five passes,” Knowles said. “When was the last time we had a tight end catch five passes?”
Promising before the season that the tight end would be more involved in the offense, the coaches showed in the second half of Saturday’s game how they plan to use Spooner.
“Alex is just so athletic,” Ford said. “[Bucknell’s] a big Cover-2 team, so they are split in the middle with their safeties. When you’ve got Alex on the linebacker it’s just an easy throw for me. He’ll go up and get it. He has great hands for a tight end. … If I throw it with confidence, he’ll bring it in. It’s definitely awesome to have a tight end like that.”
Ford said he has so much confidence in his receivers that he admitted to trying to force a couple passes in where they didn’t belong.
“I fit in a couple that I’ll probably hear about on Monday,” he said.
“Yeah, I saw that,” Knowles responded with a laugh.