November 2, 2011

Cornell Offense Too Explosive For Its Own Good?

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The Cornell football team’s passing game is pretty darn good in 2011. Star sophomore quarterback Jeff Mathews has completed 150-of-239 throws (62.8 percent) for 2,076 yards, 14 touchdowns and 84 first downs, with only seven interceptions. The Red boasts an excellent trio of wide receivers in senior Shane Savage and juniors Kurt Ondash and Luke Tasker, who collectively average 16.4 yards per reception and have each posted at least 30 catches and 500 receiving yards through seven games. A new and improved offensive line has made it all possible, allowing only 18 sacks thus far after the unit surrendered a nation-worst 49 last season.Nothing has distinguished the 2011 Red offense from those of past years more than its ability to create big plays. Mathews and company have produced 32 plays of 20 or more yards, a little more than one per quarter of play. Ondash’s 87-yard touchdown reception to ice the team’s season-opening victory over Bucknell set the tone, and the Red hasn’t taken its foot off the pedal since.But in the opening half of Cornell’s first Ivy League win of the year against Princeton on Saturday, 24-7, Mother Nature delivered a blessing in disguise for a maturing team, pounding snow into Princeton Stadium to finally slow down the Red offense. Despite 224 passing yards and a touchdown from Mathews, the unusual conditions forced the visitors to focus on basic, old school football: running the ball and playing physical defense. Senior tight end Ryan Houska rushed 26 times for 108 yards, a solid 4.2 yards per carry average, while the Red defense forced three turnovers after halftime.Three long second-half drives lifted the Red past the Tigers, as sizeable chunks of yardage on the ground set up big gains through the air. First, six Houska rushes were sandwiched around three completions to Savage on a nine-play, 80-yard touchdown drive that spanned 4:35 and gave the Red a two-score lead, 17-7, on a three-yard plunge from Houska.Two possessions later, an equal dose of run and pass propelled the visitors on a 12-play, 73-yard drive over 5:45 that ended with a 10-yard dart from Mathews to Ondash to extend the advantage, 24-7. After a Tigers punt, Cornell didn’t allow Princeton to see the ball again, using six Houska attempts out of eight plays to cover 55 yards and run the last 5:23 off the clock.All told, Cornell won the time of possession battle, 33 minutes to 27, despite being outgained on the ground by the Tigers, 231 yards to 86. On defense, senior linebacker Brandon Lainhart forced a fumble out of the back of the end zone with 7:13 remaining in the third quarter, handing over possession to the Red and leading to the first methodical scoring drive. Later in the third, senior defensive back Nick Booker-Tandy recorded the second interception of his career, and freshman defensive back Andrew Nelson’s first collegiate pick marked Princeton’s final offensive play of the contest.How did the Red defense suddenly change gears from playing steady prevention to wreaking havoc? The extra minutes the unit spent on the sidelines during the offense’s lengthened drives allowed it to refresh. The ball-hogging offense gave the players a little more time to rest. It sharpened their focus a little bit. It gave them a little more bounce in their step. In a fast-moving game of inches, seconds of inactivity are pivotal. Momentum-changing plays like the ones by Lainhart, Booker-Tandy and Nelson are significantly harder to muster when the defense is running onto the field every few minutes, regardless of whether the offense just went three-and-out or threw a bomb for a touchdown on the third play.Do what you do best, certainly. The Red offense prides itself on explosive plays. But in the end, Cornell would benefit if some of the quick 30-yard-plus touchdown strikes to Savage, Ondash and Tasker (albeit some are during comebacks, when rapid scoring is needed) were exchanged for elongated drives that culminate in red-zone scores from Houska, sophomore running back Grant Gellatly and senior fullback Nick Mlady.While the club averages slightly more points than its opponents (25.6 per game vs. 25.0), its defense has been on the field for slightly longer than its offense (31:25 per game vs. 28:25). During the Red’s recent three-game losing streak, its opponents dominated time of possession, 96:14 to 83:46.Princeton is the seventh-place team in the Ancient Eight, and a generous Tigers defense and slippery field probably boosted the Red’s success on the ground. But it is even more important for the squad to control the clock with the running game against strong competition, because the defense should be expected to contain the Princetons of the world if the offense falters.Not all the statistics seem to support my thesis. For example, of the nine Cornell touchdowns that have gone for 30 or more yards, only two have been followed by an opponent’s touchdown drive. Also, the Red was smacked in the time of possession category against Wagner, but still blew out the Seahawks, 31-7, without scoring a touchdown from more than seven yards out.However, there is not necessarily a direct spillover from one brief offensive possession to the ensuing defensive possession; rather, a deficit lingers broadly from quarter to quarter, game to game and season to season.Without question, the main problems for the team involve its defense, and the offense has kept the Red in (and brought it back into) a handful of contests. But if nitpicking, one beef with the offense is its helter-skelter pace, and when a team has a losing record, every facet is subject to change. It also isn’t farfetched to surmise that, for some teams, the more big plays its offense produces, the more big plays its defense relinquishes.Second-year head coach Kent Austin has professed all season long that, even though the spotlight shines on Mathews and the receivers, Cornell can effectively move the ball on the ground. He is exactly right, but the passing game, which former Cornell teams dreamed about, is so efficient that it hasn’t given the running game a chance. Imagine how much more dangerous Mathews would be if defenses bit on play-actionAustin believes in offensive balance, and all else being equal, he and offensive coordinator Jeff Fela strive to call 50 percent runs and 50 percent passes. Mathews has dropped back on 60 percent of plays (269-of-451) this season. Cornell has been out of some games and forced to throw, but not nearly all of them. Soon the Red will decide whether to follow that 50-50 principle or rely on its relentless passing attack to shoulder the burden. If Austin and Fela implement structural changes, the results may not fully come to fruition with some of the current personnel (e.g., seniors Houska and Mlady), but the coaches could build the philosophical foundation for 2012 and beyond now.In the next two years and three games, Cornell is going to win its fair share of contests. In the majority of those victories, Mathews will throw for much closer to 224 yards than 324 yards, and light years closer to 224 yards than 402 yards, which he compiled in a home loss to Brown on Oct. 22. The Red did average only 2.4 yards per carry last season and still lacks a running back with top-end speed, but sometimes it is necessary to expand beyond a comfort zone.

Original Author: Quintin Schwab