Establishing the run game presented itself as the Cornell football team’s biggest challenge coming into Saturday’s game against Brown. Senior running back Luke Hagy did not play after suffering a concussion against Sacred Heart last week, and dynamic freshman running back Chris Walker sat out for a second straight week following his own concussion against Harvard.
The success of the Red (0-6, 0-3 Ivy League) offense predicates on a solid running back balancing out junior quarterback Robert Somborn’s passing attack. When Cornell has struggled to establish a running game, Somborn has been unable to brush off defenders with the play-action and oftentimes has thrown the ball into double coverage, leading to interceptions. And for the first half against the Bears (4-2, 2-1 Ivy League) at Schoellkopf, the story with Somborn appeared to be a familiar one. For a lot of the first half, Somborn’s struggles continued, with the now-familiar overthrown passes and sacks taken.
And then something clicked and things changed. The Cornell running game, with carries primarily split between sophomores Jack Gellatly and Josh Sweet and junior Dane Brown, the Red found a rhythm, slicing and dicing through the Brown defense, despite Hagy’s absence, and posted 260 total rushing yards as a team, the most since 2009.
“The real Jack Gellatly making yack out there and Josh Sweet and [sophomore quarterback Jake] Jatis had a big one and Dane Brown,” said head coach David Archer. “Guys filling in for the absence of one the school’s all-time greatest players in Luke Hagy, so I thought it was a total team effort to be able to run the ball like that.”
“It all starts with the offensive lineman and I know, at least when I was in there, I was seeing big holes, big cutting lanes,” Gellatly said. “When Hagy goes down, it kills us. He’s such a versatile athlete and that’s hard. But the three of us, Dane, Josh and I, were doing everything we could this week to work to do our job.”
Brown’s defense came into Saturday as the third-best rush defense in the Ivy League, allowing 100 yards per game to its opponents. Archer credits the Red’s ability to run through the Bears’ defense to the run-game operation instituted by offensive coordinator Roy Istvan.
“Coach Istvan is really talented at scheming the run game and then you got the big guys up front, we call them five strong, paving the way against a Brown team that perennially doesn’t give up a lot of rushing yards.”
Gellatly’s 93 yards on the ground on 12 carries, Sweet’s 60 yards on six carries and Brown’s 39 yards on six carries brought the play-action back to relevancy for the Red. This allowed Somborn to open up the passing game, primarily highlighted by the junior gunslinger’s touchdown pass to junior tight end Matt Sullivan in the third quarter following a play-action fake to Brown.
Suddenly, Somborn’s arm became a weapon again for the Red. In the second half, Somborn threw for 121 of his 205 total passing yards and added on two of his three passing touchdowns on the day. But the brightest development in Somborn’s game came when the pocket collapsed. Unlike in previous weeks, Somborn decided to scramble when he found openings down the field and was able to throw balls away when no receivers were open and the pocket crumbled around him.
“The things that we’ve harped upon [Somborn] that he must execute, you saw some of those today,” Archer said. “He stepped up to rush, he scrambled for two first downs and really did some nice things. I think that we just have to find the right formula to make sure everyone is comfortably doing what they’re doing, and we can start that formula when the game starts, not in the second quarter or at halftime.”
Bouncing off a solid run game to establish the passing attack is something Archer wants to do every single week with his football team. The problem now is getting his team to execute the game-plan earlier.
“When you are able to run the football, the play action pass is deadly, the quick game becomes deadly, because you’re going to see a lot more eight-man fronts, you’re going to see soft-and-off coverage,” Archer said. “You’re going to have the access you want. It is paramount to unlocking everything we want to do.”
But for the Red, it all starts with the running game enabling a strong passing attack. That, Archer said, is the base of a successful college football program in the Ivy League.
“Today was a positive in that category and a step forward for us to run the ball like we did with a stable of backs, those guys Sweet, Gellatly and Brown — certainly have never wished for anybody to not be in the lineup — have been itching for their moment to show what they have,” Archer said. “I think that it really bodes well for the future.”