October 15, 2008

Crimson counters Red blitz, exploits single coverage

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CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Two weeks ago, fresh off an upset win over Ivy favorite Yale, the football team had a buzz word — blitzing. It was all the rage. Players and coaches alike talked enthusiastically about it.
“If you get your name called for a blitz, that’s like recess out there,” said senior safety Anthony Sabo after the game, in which Cornell registered five sacks and 11 tackles for a loss.
Last Saturday in Cambridge, though, Harvard took away recess. The Crimson picked up on the Red’s blitzing techniques from the film during the week. Come Saturday, Harvard read the Cornell blitz well and blocked effectively. The Crimson’s offensive tackles didn’t budge, leaving the Cornell secondary exposed time and time again — Harvard had seven plays of 20 yards or more.
“We did a great job protecting the football and we knew we were going to have to make some big plays against the blitz,” said Harvard head coach Tim Murphy.
Heavy blitzing is inherently a high-risk, high-reward strategy. Until Saturday, though, Cornell had only seen the reward.
The Crimson, anticipating many of the Red’s blitz packages, countered with a game plan that involved quick drops and picked on one-on-one matchups in the secondary.
“They had a lot good answers for [our blitz],” said head coach Jim Knowles ’87. “Plus, if you’re going to blitz hard, you have to go to one-on-one matchups. Against Yale, our matchups were better, but today, with the guys they had on the outside versus our people, our matchups weren’t as good.”[img_assist|nid=32655|title=Just too good|desc=Harvard’s offense steamrolled to seven plays of 20 yards or more.Just too goodJ|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]
The failed blitz generally hangs the secondary our to dry, and Saturday was no exception. Nearly all the cornerbacks got burned on deep balls. Harvard’s Matt Luft was the repeat offender, catching passes of 25, 40 and 66 yards during the game. He finished with four catches for 139 yards.
“Cornell brings a lot of different blitzes,” said Harvard quarterback Chris Pizzotti. “They switched up their defense this year and did a great job their first three games so … we knew that if we wanted to have some success on offense because they blitz so much we were going to have to make some plays when we had man coverage and some other coverages we thought we could have success against. Luckily, the coaches put a great game plan together and we got the exact coverages we thought.”
On Luft’s longest reception, Cornell brought the blitz on a third-and-five early in the fourth quarter. Luft got separation from his single-man coverage by sophomore corner Emani Fenton to haul in the pass. When Fenton caught back up to Luft, Luft deftly used a stop-and-start move to elude the corner not once but twice, eventually shedding his grasp and rumbling for a few more yards.
Fenton was third on the team with five tackles, while senior safety Tim Bax was first with 11 — not necessarily the players a coach wants to see at the top of that leader board.
“I don’t think anyone was effective today and it shows up in the secondary a bit more than in other places,” Knowles said. “It just wasn’t a good day all the way around.”
While Cornell struggled to stop the deep ball, it also fell victim to the quick slant routes that made the Red’s blitz impotent. Less than two minutes into the game, Pizzotti, again facing a third-down blitz, found Adam Chrissis cutting across the middle of the field.
“We had been expecting that coverage and that formation most of the week and so we went with that on a third down call where we were expecting the blitz,” Pizzotti said.
Chrissis caught the ball in stride, followed two big blocks and broke out into no-mans land, trotting 67 yards to the end zone and an early 7-0 lead. It was an early sign of things to come.
“They were able to pretty much do what they wanted with their offense,” Knowles said.