November 5, 2007

Turnovers Doom Football Against Dartmouth

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It’s almost like a drug resistant infection is spreading on the football team. Eight different players have coughed up nine fumbles in the last two weeks after only seven slip ups in the first six games. No one can point to where it came from, many people are affected and there doesn’t seem to be any cure. Six of these mishaps came against Dartmouth on Saturday in Cornell’s 59-31 loss.
When asked if there was any reason behind the epidemic, sophomore Stephen Liuzza sighed and took a deep breath.
“You know, I don’t know,” he said. “I think we have good ball security. It doesn’t show, but I think whenever we slip up a little bit it costs us a lot. … I think we just got really unlucky.”
Indeed, five of the fumbles led to turnovers — the Red had seven on the afternoon — and the Green capitalized with 31 points off the mistakes. In a game where the Red had the heavy statistical advantage in almost every offensive category, it was turnovers that led to two defensive touchdowns for the Green and short-field situations on three occasions.
A glance at the stat sheet might suggest a different result as Cornell had 29 first downs to Dartmouth’s 12, compiled 176 rushing yards to the Green’s 71, threw for 366 passing yards to quarterback Tom Bennewitz’s 339, ran 99 plays compared to the Greens 54 and possessed the ball for nearly 10 more minutes.
The Green struck quickly and efficiently, though, scoring on passes of 60 yards, 75 yards and 62 yards, respectively. Bennewitz completed only 16 passes, but four of them went for touchdowns.
“Really they just tried to put our corners and our defensive backs in positions where with good ball placement [only the receivers] could make the play,” said senior defensive back Gus Krimm. “I know they had a couple of big pass plays, but I don’t know with those plays removed how average passing yards were.”
Almost 60 percent of Bennewitz’s 339 yards came on those three plays while Cornell chipped away at the Dartmouth defense all afternoon, gaining yards in small chunks. Junior quarterback Nathan Ford went down with a leg injury while trying to scramble on the first possession of the game. Freshman Ben Ganter filled in for a few passes before Liuzza — who has played mostly receiver and a little running back this year — lined up in the empty backfield, five-receiver shotgun formation he was used to.
Liuzza then became the Red offense.
“We just basically ran on the empty [offensive formation], so it was some simple stuff,” Liuzza said. “A few simple things that I know and nothing too difficult. They just said go out there and make something happen basically.”
Liuzza made something happen on 69 of the team’s 99 offensive snaps, gaining 131 yards on 29 carries and tossing for 292 yards on 26 completions in 40 attempts. That shakes out to 423 of Cornell’s 544 total yards of offense.
The empty backfield was nothing new for Liuzza, having played quarterback his freshman year, but it is also a set that nullified the rushing attack of sophomore Randy Barbour, who only had seven carries in the game. Instead, Liuzza carried the load.
“A bunch of [my runs] weren’t actually designed,” Liuzza said. “It was just basically drop back and if I don’t feel comfortable with something or I don’t like what I see, just take off and go because we can always have a good play with that. … Whenever they blitzed I was able to get past them and there were some holes and I knew I could get 8-10 yards.”
Liuzza punched the ball in for scores of two and four yards, respectively. The first tally was right before the half and brought the the Red within 10 at 24-14 — the closest it would come for the rest of the game.
Liuzza also found his receivers, however, hitting junior Zac Canty for a score on his way to a six reception, 76-yard day. The touchdown was a wobbling 24-yard toss that found Canty after he split two safeties and hauled the ball in over the middle linebacker to put the Red on the board.
“I actually haven’t made that throw since high school probably,” Liuzza said. “… Basically he made the play, I just put it up there.”
And despite throwing two picks — one that was returned the other way 70 yards for a touchdown — Liuzza completed eight balls to sophomore Bryan Walters who went over 100 yards for the second straight week with 103. Junior Tommy Bleymaier also racked up 107 yards on nine receptions, adding significant numbers to his season totals of 186 yards on 22 catches.
“To tell you the truth I really didn’t realize during the game that we were going to him that much as I saw after the game,” Liuzza said. “I just throw to the open guy; I don’t really think too much. I guess it was just whatever area he was in I was feeling it. He did a great job and stepped up big.”
All the offensive fireworks were really for naught, though. The Red found itself trailing 17-0 midway through the second quarter and the team didn’t get within 10 all afternoon after that. Dartmouth scored right before the halftime buzzer on the 62-yard bomb, and then again right out of the gates in the third quarter on a nine-yard run to make it 38-14.
It wasn’t until a Liuzza fumble in the fourth quarter, though, that “things started to get out of control a little bit” in Krimm’s words. A Dartmouth linebacker broke free up the middle and was charging down Liuzza.
“He hit me right as I was tucking it away,” Liuzza said. “I didn’t really get to get a good hold on it.”
The ball popped free and Rehan Muttalib rumbled the 11 yards between him and the endzone to put the finishing touches on the 59-point afternoon. It was most points Dartmouth had scored since 1935.
One of Cornell’s focus in practice leading up to the game was stopping the run, and it did just that. The team was hoping to translate a stalled running game into an opportunity to get more pressure on the quarterback, which it was only able to do with limited success.
“We just contained it inside the tackle box and we loaded up the box,” Krimm said. “… I think we were able to get a decent amount of pressure on him. Obviously we didn’t have as many sacks as we would have liked but I think we made him feel the pressure. Again, though, he was able to find the areas where his receivers were open quicker than we could get to him which obviously we need to do a better job of and not put our defensive backs in positions where they have to cover the receivers for a long period of time.”