It’s one thing to upset a preseason Ancient Eight favorite such as Yale on your home field in front of 11,143 screaming fans for Homecoming. It’s quite another thing to do it in front of a national audience. Tomorrow, that is exactly the challenge Cornell will tackle as it squares off against defending Ivy League champion Harvard. Versus TV will offer live coverage on its “Ivy League Game of the Week” with kickoff slated for noon in Cambridge, Mass.[img_assist|nid=32590|title=Next stop, ESPN|desc=Junior Randy Barbour (30) and the Red will try to slay yet another giant when it competes against Harvard.|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]
Although the Red (3-0, 1-0 Ivy) and the Crimson (2-1, 0-1) both received votes in this week’s The Sports Network and the FCS Coaches polls, neither head coach Jim Knowles ’87 nor his players will concede that this matchup is anything more than a just another regular season game.
“We’re definitely excited,” Knowles said. “[Playing on national television] is not something we talk about [though]. I think it’s great, but our guys just want to play the same way no matter what the situation is. It’s more just about us playing four quarters and handling whatever the opposition throws at us. There hasn’t been talk around here like, ‘Hey, we’re playing Yale or Lehigh or Bucknell or Harvard.’ We don’t talk about the opponent. We just talk about our team and playing the best we can.”
Junior running back Randy Barbour, who leads the Red with 187 rushing yards and two touchdowns, echoed Knowles’ message, not hesitating once when the issue of playing on a national stage was brought up.
“It’s just a regular game,” said the 5-9, 190-pound tailback. “We don’t really focus on the media. We’re just out there to play. We don’t look at any team differently. Our goal is to win all of our games and it’s just one game at a time. That’s it.”
Media hype and national coverage aside, Cornell’s No. 7 nationally ranked defense will be tested as it attempts to reign in the Crimson’s potent offensive attack. Harvard senior quarterback Chris Pizzotti ranks third nationally in total offense with 323.3 yards per game and in passing yards per game with 307.0. Pizzotti’s primary target, junior wide receiver Matt Luft, towers over opposing cornerbacks with his 6-6 frame. Luft leads the Ivies in receiving with 107 yards per game.
“I think [Pizzotti] is potentially an NFL prospect,” Knowles said. “He’s 6-6, has great presence in the pocket and handles pressure well. And, the hard part is that he’s throwing to a 6-6 guy too in Luft.”
Something has to give as Cornell enters the contest with the No. 7 ranked defense in the nation and will battle Harvard’s No. 10 ranked offense. Sophomore cornerbacks Andy Wade and Emani Fenton, 5-10 and 5-9 respectively, will be put to the test. By sundown on Saturday, the question will be answered once and for all … Does size really matter?
“They have very big receivers and our defenders have a big heart,” Knowles said. “We have to play with a lot of heart and be in good position. We have to change up the coverages by running some double coverages and running some blitzes. We can’t let the quarterback get into a rhythm. He’s dangerous and their receivers are dangerous, so we have to switch it up and keep them off balance.”
The Red will also face a challenge on the offensive side of the ball as the Crimson boast the No. 9 ranked rushing defense in the nation and have not allowed a 100-yard rusher in 30 straight contests.
“The [Harvard defense] has a lot of returners who were All-Ivy,” Knowles said. “They have a lot of good individual players, so I think the key to this game is balance — our balance and keeping the other team off balance. We ran the ball well in the first two games, and in the third game we passed the ball well. We want to be able to do both, so that our advantage at the end of the day is that they won’t know what’s coming.”
Through its first three games of the season, Cornell ran for 333 yards with Barbour and senior tailback Luke Siwula accounting for the bulk of those yards. Should the offense bog down, look for the Red to place Barbour and Siwula directly behind center to take a direct snap.
“That was something new we’re trying,” Barbour said. “Other than that, we’re just going with our basic stuff — just inside run and outside run. We’ve watched film and we’ve studied their tendencies, so our offensive coordinator picks plays that [will work well] against their defense and allow us to move the ball against them. We’re trying to get a balanced attack. It’s pretty much basic stuff. We just have to protect and execute. It’s all about execution.”
At the outset of the 2008 campaign, the experts tabbed Harvard and Yale to be the preseason Ivy League champion in media poll. However, tomorrow Cornell, which ranked sixth in the poll, will attempt to prove the prognosticators wrong again — this time in front a national audience.