September 29, 2008

Cornell Uses Staunch Run Defense, Blitz Packages to Shut Down Yale Offense

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If anyone ever made a talking doll of football head coach Jim Knowles ’87, choosing its phrases would not be that difficult. And in the press conference after Cornell’s 17-14 win over Yale on Saturday — an old-fashioned skirmish befitting the drizzle and gloomy clouds — the media pulled the string and Knowles uttered one of his favorite idioms.
“This was not about offense, defense, or special teams,” he said. “It’s about one team.”
As true as that has been through two games this year, with the offense picking up the defense and vice versa, Saturday’s tilt was certainly about the defense.
“We did what we could, and our defense, you can’t say enough about them,” said sometime wide receiver, sometime quarterback Stephen Liuzza, a junior. “They were awesome.”
And what the offense could do Saturday was not much. What the defense did, though, was nearly everything. There was constant pressure on the quarterback by senior safeties Anthony Sabo and Gus Krimm — six sacks and three fumbles recovered — not to mention holding All-American Mike McLeod to 57 yards rushing on 20 carries.
“Does this say that Yale had net yards rushing of zero?” Knowles exclaimed when handed the final stats, a bemused look on his face. Indeed, including the yardage lost on sacks, Yale netted no yards on the ground.
“I thought [the Cornell defense] did a great job against our offense and kept us off balance all day,” said Yale head coach Jack Siedlecki. “That’s the name of the game.”
And the Red did that through a calculated game plan that involved lots of blitz packages and some outstanding play from the linebacking corps.
“We schemed up a lot,” said senior linebacker Brian Ostrowksy. “[We looked at] every major play they had and how we were going to stop it in the base defense or with the blitz and we practiced that and everyone really watched a lot of film this week. We made a team effort to shut them down this week.”
Shut them down is exactly what the Red did. In the first quarter, Yale drove into Cornell territory twice. That was the last time the offense would see enemy territory until its last drive of the game.
Yale, traditionally a running team, could not establish anything. McLeod, who was a candidate for the Walter Payton Award coming into the season (annually given to the best offensive player in the Football Championship Subdivision), was frequently met at, or behind the line of scrimmage. Even when he gained yardage, he was dragging defenders with him.
Ostrowsky, who registered eight tackles and one for a loss, spent extra time in the film room this week. Come game time, he knew exactly where he needed to be on almost every running play. Siedlecki kept stubbornly coming back to Ostrowsky’s name — or number at least — in the press conference.
“No. 33 made, I don’t know how many plays in the first half,” he said. “The inside linebacker, that wasn’t a blitz, that kid just made plays. He got off blocks and just made plays. He did a good job, it wasn’t because somebody was coming on a blitz unblocked.”
When someone suggested that Cornell had been successful defending the run because they stacked the box, Siedlecki emphatically countered the point.
“No, no,” he said. “I saw No. 33 make at least four plays in the running game where we absolutely had him in the scheme, and we just didn’t handle him. He did a good job.”
Knowles was as giddy talking about Ostrowsky’s performance as his Bulldog counterpart Sielecki was aggravated.
“Yale’s real good,” Knowles said. “It’s not so much about Yale as it was about Brian getting in the right position. We have confidence that Brian, when he gets in the right position, he’ll be better than any guy he plays. That’s what he did today.”
But it wasn’t all about Ostrowsky. The run defense as a whole stood up to preseason Ivy favorite Yale and its big, veteran offensive line. Junior linebacker Chris Costello registered eight tackles, one for a loss, and forced fumble. He was there when it mattered most, stuffing McLeod for no gain, then a two-yard loss leading to a three-and-out right after the Red had scored to go up by two scores.
“Chris Costello was a No. 2 in the spring and just fought his way up to the first team,” Knowles said. “He is just playing exceptionally well and seeing the ball really well. In our new stack defense, we kind of protect him, which gives him a way to make plays so that’s great.”
And it wasn’t all about the linebackers. Sabo and Krimm frequented the Yale backfield all afternoon. Watching tape of Yale’s win against Yale last week, Knowles noticed Yale was throwing the ball more than usual. Anticipating a similar approach, Knowles implemented an inordinate amount of blitz packages that hadn’t been in the playbook against Bucknell last weekend.
For the safeties, it was like Christmas had come early.
“It was a game plan and we worked on it all week,” said Sabo, who had 3 1/2 tackles for a loss, two sacks and a forced fumble. “Coaches kept putting us in the right blitzes. If you get your name called for a blitz, that’s like recess out there. So we were just out there having fun and executing. It was a fun win.”
Six of the squad’s 11 tackles for a loss came from the secondary. The defensive backs were not only a key part of the run defense but also kept Yale quarterback Ryan Fodor out of his comfort zone. Yale was forced into a lot of second-and-longs and third-and-longs throughout the afternoon.
“There were a lot of guys coming up the middle on just about every play,” said Fodor, who was 15-of-28 with one touchdown, one pick and a fumble to start the fourth quarter. “It’s tough to step up in the pocket when they’re blitzing like that.”
And it’s tough to score when you don’t get ball into your opponent’s territory.
“Any offense, when you get into second-and-10, second-and-15, first-and-20, third-and 20, there just aren’t many plays you can call,” Siedlecki said. “There just aren’t. We took some losses.”