During Cornell football’s 2015 1-9 season, turnovers were a major weakness for the team, intercepting just four passes all year. In just two games this year — both of them victories — the defense has already accounted for five.
Sophomore cornerback DJ Woullard snagged two last week against Bucknell in his first ever varsity action. His turnovers were a big reason why the Red was able to take down the Bison away from home. Against Yale on Saturday, the defense again came up huge, this time picking off the Bulldogs three times.
“Our ball skills have clearly improved,” said senior captain and linebacker Jackson Weber, who had an interception at the end of the game against Yale. “I think we dropped a lot of interceptions last year as well. Guys are putting in extra work before practice, after practice making sure that their ball skills are in tune.”
The words ‘It’s all about the ball’ appear throughout Schoellkopf Memorial Hall, on walls and above doors, in the locker room and on team handouts. It is these words that the team tries to live by each game.
“We’ve been saying we’re all about the ball for three years now,” said head coach David Archer ’05. “We certainly were last week and we were today. It’s really good to see it start showing up.”
These past two weeks’ performances are all the more impressive considering that junior safety Sean Scullen reportedly broke his patella against Bucknell and will be out for the season. Scullen, one of team’s big playmakers on defense, led the squad in interceptions last year with two.
A week ago, Yale’s Rafe Chapple tossed three interceptions, as the Bulldogs sorely miss the contributions of Morgan Roberts, their standout quarterback from a year ago. When asked if this was something the team will keep in mind in the days leading up to the game, junior safety Nick Gesualdi joked that he hopes the Bulldogs “share the love” this weekend as well.
Gesualdi got his wish with an interception about 10 minutes into the game. After bumping into a teammate, Gesualdi wove across the field, dodging Yale players and breaking tackles. Looking like the Red’s newest wide receiver, Gesualdi picked up 30 yards after the catch.
The interception would set up the Red’s second touchdown of the game, a 10-yard pass from sophomore quarterback Dalton Banks to senior wide receiver Marshall Deutz.
On the ensuing Yale drive, after the Red’s defense pressured Chapple and forced him to flee the pocket. The Bulldog quarterback tossed an errant pass in the direction of senior safety Justin Solomon, who corralled it, giving possession back to Cornell.
These two early turnovers set the tone for the first half. The Red pounced on the Bulldogs early, refusing to let up defensively.
“[Offensive success] in first half was set up by our defense,” Archer said. “They just kept taking the ball away.”
Yale tried to switch things up, bringing in a new quarterback in hopes of avoiding any more turnovers, but the change was to no avail.
In the fourth quarter, after narrowly missing out on two interceptions on back-to-back plays, Weber picked off Yale’s second quarterback Tre Moore. With just 2:26 left on the clock, the interception effectively ended the game, all but assuring Cornell would come away victorious.
“Third time’s the charm, I guess,” Weber said. “[Yale] felt that I was a good guy to throw at. I had a couple good opportunities earlier but I was happy to get that final one and ice the game for us.”
Weber — a linebacker who Archer has consistently labeled versatile — was able to show off his flexibility against Yale, playing sharp pass coverage.
Solomon jokingly referred to Weber’s pass defense as “Weber Island.”
“As we have done in the past several years, we’ve put more focus on taking the ball away, making sure we get a least two turnovers a game,” Weber said. “Today we were able to get a few more which is always nice to help out the offense and put them in good field position.”