October 9, 2008

Red Turns American

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What a difference a year makes. In 2007, the Cornell defense had been torched for 560 yards on the ground after its first three games. In 2008, Cornell no longer rolls out a “Red” carpet for opposing tailbacks to stroll down on their way to the end zone. In a remarkable turnaround, Cornell leads the Ivy League in rushing defense, surrendering a paltry 111 yards through its first three games of the campaign.
“You get what you emphasize,” said head coach Jim Knowles ’87. “Coming out of last year, we knew we had to emphasize run defense. When we took over the program that’s what we really emphasized. Then, we got a little too fancy with too many blitzes and moving our guys around all of the time. Guys started getting out of position. So, from the first practice last spring, we focused on getting in the right position to stop the run first.”[img_assist|nid=32571|title=Running out of time|desc=|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]
Similar to last season, the veteran defensive line is anchored by seniors Dario Arezzo and Lucas McCarthy on the ends and Frank Kunis at nose guard. The competition has also largely been the same as Cornell squared off against Bucknell and Yale in two of its first three games just as last year. As for the difference, assistant head coach and defensive coordinator Clayton Carlin suggested that simplifying the playbook and emphasizing toughness and resiliency have significantly reduced the holes in the Red’s defense.
“The biggest thing is that we’ve greatly simplified things,” Carlin said. “If it’s simple, the guys can play faster, play harder and play more physically. We have simplified greatly what was the defensive package.”
Kunis, who has registered seven tackles, a sack and forced a fumble, believes last year’s porous defense proved to be a motivating force for this year.
“The whole philosophy during the off season was that we have to be more physical, more dominating up front and in the box,” he said. “We’re also a little bit older now and we, the three D-linemen, have been at this for three years now. It has a lot to do with technique work and execution.”
So far, the hard work has paid dividends for the Red this season. The front line has allowed only 37 yards rushing per game after facing a potent Bucknell spread offense, a Yale rushing attack ranked No. 8 in the nation and Lehigh’s 100-yard rusher Matt McGowan.
All of the credit cannot go solely to the personnel up front, though, as the Red has also enjoyed exceptional tackling from its secondary and linebackers, who are featured in a wide variety of blitz packages.
“It helps a great deal,” Carlin said. “You always have your run blitzes and your pass blitzes. That’s who we are and that’s what we do. Nothing’s going to change and we’ll continue to do that. We’ll bring anyone from anywhere — safeties, corners, linebackers, whoever. You have to certainly hold up in pass coverage. But, our philosophy here is first and foremost, you have got to always be committed to stopping the run, and then you go from there. I think any time you blitz, you’re potentially voiding a zone or you’re locked on man-to-man coverage.”
Yale senior running back Mike McLeod played a key role in adding to the bloated 560 yards that the Red gave up on the ground to open up the first three games of the 2007 season. McLeod piled up 151 rushing yards and three touchdowns in a 51-12 victory for the Bulldogs last season.
This year, the All-American tailback was swarmed by a sea of Red for a meager 57 rushing yards on 20 carries at Schoellkopf Field. Things certainly do not get any easier this weekend as the Red tangle with the Harvard Crimson and its feature back Gino Gordon. With this game scheduled to be Cornell’s only appearance on national television this season (Saturday at noon on the Versus Network), the Red hopes to display its lockdown run defense to the nation.
“There has probably never been a better feeling since I’ve been here,” Kunis said. “We all knew that was the biggest game we played here in our four years. To hold an All-American to only 57 [rushing] yards in a game is unreal. We’ve never felt a better feeling.”
“We looked at the net rushing and it was at zero [a sack counts as negative rushing yards in college football],” McCarthy said. “We were pretty ecstatic because that’s really what beat us the year before. We still have to keep that up throughout the year. We have to keep playing physical and tackle well.”