And then there was one.
The football team (5-4, 2-4 Ivy) is on the eve of its last game of the season. It has been a season highlighted by crooked numbers on both sides of the scoreboard, but doused in turnover problems and marred by injuries. Despite all the ups and downs, though, the team will look to show off its progress against Penn (3-6, 2-4) tomorrow in the annual end-of-year matchup.
“You’ve seen the growth of our offense throughout the year,” said head coach Jim Knowles ’87. “We want to be balanced, spread the field, throw the ball on the perimeter and on the short intermediate passing game to open up the running game. It doesn’t matter what the defense does, we can do that.”
Cornell will once again rely on the young backfield tandem of sophomore Stephen Liuzza at quarterback and sophomore Randy Barbour at running back. Senior back Luke Siwula has been sidelined since Week 3 against Georgetown and junior quarterback Nathan Ford went down hard on the third offensive snap against Dartmouth two weeks ago.
For the injury-depleted offense to maintain a balanced attack, it will have to outsmart a stingy Penn running defense that has only allowed 2.8 yards per carry this season. The Quakers boast the second-best run-stopping unit in the Ancient Eight, and have given up the third-fewest rushing touchdowns on the year.
“[Penn’s run defense] really hasn’t [changed the way we prepare],” Barbour said. “We just have to control the line of scrimmage. Once we do that, I’ll be able to see the lanes and cut and do my thing. It doesn’t really matter [what defense we’re playing against]. It’s just about our offensive line being able to control the line of scrimmage.”
Knowles knows this is easier said than done, however.
“Penn’s good, man,” he said, shaking his head slightly. “They’re just good up front. They’re as good a front seven as we’ve seen. … We’ve got three seniors [on the offensive line] and they need to have the best game of their career, you know? It’s not looking for miracles, they just have to be as good as they possibly can to play their best game.”
Those three seniors are co-captain Brian McGuire, Ted Sonnenburg and Loren Rosenberg. They will face a defensive line that has not only stymied running attacks, but helped to create 18 sacks — third best in the Ivies. Knowles pointed out that the best way to avoid interceptions, which have plagued the Red at times this year, is to give the quarterback time in the pocket.
“No. 1, your line has to protect so you don’t put your quarterback in bad situations, and the quarterback has to make good decisions,” Knowles said. “It’s just the maturation of the offense. We’re on track to doing that.”
To prepare his front line, Knowles has been putting them through extra reps against the first-string defense this week.
“[I’m just] trying to create more competition and just heat things up for the last week,” he said.
While the Red O-line readies for the Quaker D-line, Liuzza will have to be wary of the Penn secondary. The Quaker DBs have picked off 13 balls, good for third in the Ivies. Knowles points to not falling behind early and a balanced attack as the key to limiting interceptions.
“What we need to do on offense is not turn the ball over and be able to establish enough things on the perimeter to be able to open them up a little bit,” he said. “We still need to run the ball, you just got to spread them out a little bit.”
The Red will open things up with the spread offense it has been running with Liuzza under center. Barbour points out the benefits of slipping back into this offense is comfortable because it was often employed last season.
“Last year was a spread offense, [and now we’ve] tried to go back to it to try and utilize Steve’s running abilities,” Barbour said. “I really like it. It really opens up the running game and the passing game as well.”
While Cornell will look for a more balanced approach on offense, Penn will bring its two-tailback approach to Franklin Field. The feature back of the two is Joe Sandberg who has punched in nine touchdowns on the season to complement 790 rushing yards at a 5.4 yard per carry clip. This has forced the Red defense to shift its focus in practice after preparing last week for a passing-oriented Columbia squad.
“A lot of times last week during practice we concentrated a lot more on the pass,” said senior linebacker Doug Lempa. “This week, we’ve concentrated on the running plays. They’re a power team and a lot of time they line up two fullbacks in the backfield. We have to make sure we stop that because at times we’ve had a little trouble in the past giving up the big play. We need to make sure we fill our gaps and do our responsibilities.”
And although Penn’s passing game might not bring images of the Greatest Show on Turf to mind, quarterback Bryan Walker has had his time check down on receivers all season. The offensive line has only given up nine sacks on the year, one more than league leader Yale.
After a successful week pressuring Columbia quarterback Craig Hormann with a more aggressive blitzing style than the Red had used thus far, Lempa thinks similar energy is what’s need to continue the success.
“I think we just have to keep giving great effort,” Lempa said. “A lot of times last week when we blitzed, everyone was just pitching a fit and getting through. If we can do that again and give our greatest effort we should be fine.”
But will fans see as many blitzes as last weekend?
“I hope so,” Lempa said as he tossed his head back in a laugh.
And then there was one.