When sophomore quarterback Jeff Mathews took the first snap of his collegiate career, he arrived under center leading a team that was already in a 20-0 hole and on its way to a season opening loss at Wagner, 41-7. Despite the blowout, Mathews impressed the coaching staff in his debut and held down the starting position through the remainder of the season, en route to Ivy League Rookie of the Year honors.
On Saturday the Red (1-1, 0-1 Ivy League) will host the Seahawks (1-3, 1-2 Northeast Conference) in a 12:30 p.m. matchup at Schoellkopf Field. With last year’s landslide defeat at Wagner still lingering, head coach Kent Austin has spent the days following a difficult loss to Yale, 37-17, emphasizing the necessity of only focusing on Saturday’s contest.
“We don’t dwell on the past,” Austin said. “We’re trying to stay in the present and focus on what we need to do as a football team to get better … and we have different players and different levels of experience [compared to last year]. We’ve got a lot of guys that are playing that don’t know anything about [the Wagner loss].”
The increased experience present on the 2011 Red, Austin explains, is not limited only to Mathews, who has recorded over 600 yards passing through the team’s first two games.
Cornell has seen increased production throughout its offense, particularly in the running game, where sophomore running back Grant Gellatly logged 95 yards on the ground in last week’s loss at Yale. For Austin, the success of Gellatly, who rushed for a team-best 87 yards in the defeat at Wagner in 2010, has proved crucial to executing his offensive scheme.
“We have a philosophy here where we believe in running the football,” Austin said of his balanced offensive approach. “We were able to run for 152 yards last week against a pretty good defense, and that helps our passing game, and it just helps the whole complexion of our offense.”
Mathews, who has not been sacked in either Cornell game this season, pointed to the newly constructed offensive line when asked about the Red’s accomplishments through the air and on the ground.
“When we’re able to give up no sacks in two games and also have Grant almost rush for 100 yards, that’s a huge plus for our offensive line. I think that’s the reason we’ve been success offensively,” he said.
“That’s four new starters up front for us,” Austin added, referring to the quartet joining junior center Bob Bullington on the offensive line. “Real credit to their work ethic, real credit to [offensive coordinator Jeff Fela]. They’ve done an outstanding job the first two games … against two pretty good defensive fronts.”
The passing game has also received a tremendous lift from junior wide receiver Kurt Ondash, who leads the team with 191 yards receiving and a touchdown on nine receptions after catching only 11 passes for 62 yards in 2010. Ondash enters Saturday’s contest as one of three Cornell receivers with over 150 yards receiving through the season’s first two games.
Senior Shane Savage, who reached 1,000 career yards in the Red’s season opener, and junior Luke Tasker have each caught nine passes and a touchdown from Mathews.
“Jeff is a very accurate passer, he understands the game … and it’s showing, but he really needs players around him to perform well, and that has happened for him, which is helping his success,” Austin said of his quarterback.
On the defensive end, the Red spent the majority of its reps last week in its own territory due to Yale’s powerful special teams unit. The Bulldogs dominated the field position game, leaving the Cornell defense with little margin for error against an explosive offense led by quarterback Patrick Witt and running back Allen Harris.
“We don’t look at it that way,” said senior defensive end Zack Imhoff, when asked about the impact of field position on the unit’s play. “That would just be an excuse for us. We had chances to get off the field, and we just couldn’t do it.”
In Wagner, the Cornell defense faces an offensive unit led by quarterback Nick Doscher. The junior threw for 277 yards and three touchdowns in the Seahawks’ blowout victory against the Red last season, and has completed just under 46 percent of his passes for over 500 yards and three touchdowns this season.
However, the Wagner offense has been powered most by the legs of sophomore running back Dominique Williams. The 5-9 back averages 5.1 yards per carry and has reached the end zone six times through his team’s first four games.
“Their quarterback is really good, he’s been there for a while now, and their running back is probably one of the better ones we’ll see all year, but it all starts up front. As long as we can … contain them, we’ll be fine,” Imhoff said.
In order to win the field position battle the Red will need senior Brad Greenway to perform double duty, as the kicker will also be called upon to punt in the absence of freshman Sam Wood, who also missed last week’s game due to illness. Greenway, who had not kicked in a game since his high school days, was pleased with his performance at Yale, but recognizes that room for improvement exists.
“I started getting in the rhythm of things, ended up hitting three or four inside the 20, hit them pretty well and I punted really well [in practice] Wednesday … so my expectations are pretty high,” Greenway said. “I like [punting]. It keeps me involved in the game, it keeps me loose and I like to be able to contribute as much as I can.”
Greenway’s assumption of the punting job represents an anomaly among the 2011 Red — a player with less experience at his position than he had the year prior. For Austin, the growth of his team over the last year is the strongest indicator that the previous season’s 41-7 defeat at the Seahawks will be avenged on Saturday.
“There’s a huge difference, obviously,” he said. “There’s an understanding of our offense and defense, and what we’re trying to do schematically … You really don’t get better as a player until you’ve played in real games.”
Original Author: Evan Rich