As many students leave Ithaca for Fall Break, the Cornell football team squares off against Harvard in its first Ivy League home game Saturday on Schoellkopf Field at 12:30 p.m. In search of a signature conference win that would prove the team’s legitimacy, the Red (2-1, 0-1 Ivy League) looks to top the Crimson (2-1, 1-0) for the first time since 2005.
That might not be as hard as it sounds, especially with the way the Red has played so far in 2011. Riding an efficient offense, stingy defense and active special teams, Cornell has blossomed in head coach Kent Austin’s second year. The squad snuck past Bucknell in the season opener and bullied Wagner last weekend, but the Red knows the stakes are even higher in league games. Cornell came out flat and eventually succumbed to Yale on the road Sept. 24 against its toughest and only league opponent of the young season.
“This is a pretty big game in terms of how it can set us up for the rest of the year, but I don’t want to create that aura around the game that makes people nervous,” said senior defensive back and kick returner Rashad Campbell, who recorded his first interception of the season on the final play of the first half last week. “It’s obviously a big game, but we don’t want to make too big of a deal about it because that kind of mentality has gone against us in the past.”
Perhaps that was the mentality last time Cornell took the field against Harvard, a year ago Sunday, when the Red attempted to follow up its first win of the season against Bucknell the week before. Instead, the Crimson rushed for 314 yards, produced 17 plays of 10 yards or more and recorded nine sacks to thump the Red, 31-17.
But the early indications are that the 2011 Red is nothing like previous versions. The major area of improvement has been the play at the line of scrimmage. Cornell has allowed only two sacks in three games, and the Red registered eight sacks of its own against the Seahawks on Saturday. The defense also has 28 tackles for loss after tallying just 38 in all of 2010, and has limited opposing running backs to a 3.1 yards per carry average — down 2.7 yards from last season.
“It all started with the d-line [against Wagner],” said senior linebacker Brandon Lainhart. “If the d-line plays like that every week, we are going to be pretty hard to beat.”
“It’s kind of a cliché saying in football that all games start in the trenches, but I think it’s noticeable here with us,” Campbell said. “The [defensive line] is making things easier for the linebackers and the defensive backs. We don’t have to stay in coverage too long; we can be flexible and make plays. The pressure they get on the quarterback has really been helping us in terms of our play calling — we have no restrictions and it allows us to build confidence. We feed off each other.”
The front seven will be responsible for containing Harvard junior running back Treavor Scales, who rushed for 93 yards in last year’s matchup. He has logged 256 yards and two touchdowns in 2011.
“We need to stop the run and get pressure, first and foremost,” Campbell said. “[Scales] is a good running back, but we have a scheme in place to make sure they don’t get going. We’ll work to keep them inside and not let [Scales] go East-West where he has most of his success.”
Junior quarterback Colton Chapple continues his reign on the Harvard offense while senior Collier Winters recovers from illness. Chapple has completed 66 percent of his passes (29-of-44) for 328 yards and three touchdowns. Leading the Crimson in receiving is 6-4 senior Chris Lorditch with 12 catches for 117 yards, followed by 6-5 sophomore Cameron Bate with 11 receptions for 173 yards. Harvard’s depth also extends to junior Kyle Juszczyk and senior Alex Sarkisian, who have recorded 97 and 111 receiving yards, respectively.
“We need to not give up easy passes to their receivers,” Campbell said. “As a secondary, we need to trust our speed because I believe we are faster — they are taller — and we need to make sure they don’t get yards after the catch by using our bodies to our advantage. If we execute our jobs and keep them contained with no yards after the catch, we can be successful.”
Cornell’s offense has compiled plenty of yards after the catch, as sophomore quarterback Jeff Mathews already reached exactly 800 passing yards on the year with the conclusion of last week’s win over Wagner. Mathews leads the Ivy League in total offense (270.7 yards per game) and pass efficiency (153.33). The Red’s leading receiver is junior Kurt Ondash, who has surpassed his 2010 totals in three games, with 15 catches for 271 yards and a touchdown.
“[Senior wide receiver Shane Savage] and [junior wide receiver Luke Tasker] have gotten a lot of attention so far this season with their success over the past year and it has opened up some things for me,” Ondash said. “[Mathews] has done a good job reading defenses and finding who is open — that’s what I really can attribute [the offensive success] to.”
However, the task is extremely stiff this week, as the Red goes up against the second-best scoring defense in the nation. The contest should serve as a barometer for a maturing Cornell offense.
“Harvard has a great team and a great defense,” Ondash said. “They’re pretty experienced. They have [a few] really good cornerbacks we’ve played against. They’re really good all-around, but we’re good, too.”
The Red has also played more than solid in the most underrated facet of the game — special teams. Kicker Brad Greenway has made all three of his field goal attempts and all nine of his extra point attempts, while assuming punting duties from freshman Sam Wood. Campbell averages 25.2 yards per kick return, good enough for 45th in the nation. The unit has also blocked a total of four kicks — two punts, an extra point and a field goal.
“It’s unbelievable,” Ondash said. “Against Yale our special teams didn’t have a great game and we didn’t help with our turnovers to constantly give Yale a short field. Then [against Wagner] all our drives were starting in their territory or close to it, and that’s huge for us and it shows how big field position is for the ultimate result.
Cornell believes as a team it has taken the next step.
“We were close last year, but obviously putting in a whole new offense before last season and having as much youth as we did, we had some trouble,” Ondash said. “We got some more experience under our belt and it has allowed us to make those big plays this year.”
The Red’s confidence is sky high, as well.
“If we stop the run and get after the quarterback, there is no way that Harvard can beat us,” Lainhart said.
Original Author: Quintin Schwab