November 21, 2008

Football Hosts Historic Rival Penn

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After such a strong start to the football team’s season — winning its first three games and upsetting preseason Ivy-favorite Yale — it is easy to be disappointed with the squad’s 4-5 (2-4 Ivy) record going into its final contest.
“You are just trying to teach them to live in the present,” said head coach Jim Knowles ’87. “It can be a lesson that will last a lifetime. Things don’t always go the way you planned, but you still have opportunities in front of you.”
Tomorrow, the Red will have the opportunity to send its large class of 33 seniors off with a win at Schoellkopf Field — a place where this graduating class has posted a 15-5 record over its four years on the Hill.
Standing in its way, however, will be Penn, an Ivy front-runner for most of the year. Superficially, Penn and Cornell seem like polar opposites. Penn has won games on the strength of a frugal defense (16.1 points per game) and a run-the-clock-down offense, leading the league in both pass defense and possession time.
“Something [Penn likes] to do is sustain drives,” said senior co-captain Graham Rihn. “They do that by a lot of rushing plays. They’re not a big pass team, but they’re still efficient in the pass. We have to just be ready to go out there.”
Conversely, Cornell’s pass-happy approach has yielded the only Ivy offense to gain over 400 yards per contest. The Red’s defense, however, while showing signs of dominance in games against Yale and Dartmouth, has been erratic, yielding 24.8 points per game and 356.3 yards per game. Both numbers rank seventh in the Ancient Eight.
The Red’s biggest concern will not be stopping the Quakers, who have registered scoring totals during conference play of 15, 14 and nine points. Instead, Cornell will have to figure out how to strategize against two of the League’s best corners.
“Any time you have two lock-down corners, that means you can do whatever you want with your defense,” Knowles said.
Penn also boasts a very pugnacious free safety.
“They have a free safety who is kind of like a head hunter guy,” Knowles said. “He’s really tough. He takes some hard shots.”
Because of this, the offense may have to do something it has struggled to do all year — run the ball. While Knowles wouldn’t reveal his hand, he did let on that he was planning some new formations to bring back the running game after essentially a season-long hiatus.
“I think we need to come up with some new ways to try and run the ball,” he said. “We haven’t been able to do that. You want to go where maybe they’re not as good and that means we have to find a way to run the ball. … It’s really a fight for balance, but the ultimate answer is that we have to find some ways to run it — some new formations.”
For the defense to be successful against Penn, Rihn pointed to physicality, something the Red has focused on this year after getting pushed around in a few games last year. Just like the overall defense, however, Cornell has at times seemed physically dominating, but at other times has been physically dominated — particularly in games against Colgate and Columbia.
“It’s a physically challenging game, especially with Penn last year, we were totally outmatched physically,” Rihn said. “We’re trying to not let that happen this year.”
The Quakers rushed for 329 yards and four scores in their 45-9 win last year. Though Penn did not return running quarterback Bryan Walker, sophomore Keiffer Garton has come on throughout the season for the squad this year, and brought back the running aspect at the quarterback position that the Red struggled so much with last year.
Last week in a 24-21 loss to Harvard, Garton posted 187 yards and two scores on the ground. He passed for another 193 yards. Although his overall passing numbers — one touchdown to five picks — are not impressive, his 5.9 yards per carry on the ground is cause for concern.
Last year, riding a 34-14 senior day win over Columbia in the second-to-last game of the season, Rihn said he thought the team might have let up a little bit.
“It’s a different story this year,” Rihn said. “We’re at home. It’s our senior day. I know our team is going to play extremely hard for our seniors and just for the team in general.”