Katie Sims / Sun Staff Photographer

Nick Gesualdi caught two of the team's four interceptions today, bringing the season total to 10; more than double last year's total in half as many games.

October 15, 2016

Big Plays Expose Cornell Football’s Defensive Vulnerability

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Throughout its entire 2015 season, Cornell football amassed a total of four interceptions. In Saturday’s tilt with Sacred Heart, the Red matched last year’s production and brought the team total up to 10; more than doubling last year’s total in half as many games.

Sophomore linebacker Daniel Crochet started the turnover parade by forcing a fumble deep in the Pioneers’ territory. Cornell capitalized on the takeaway and took the lead early in the game.

Junior safety Nick Gesualdi had two interceptions on the day, bringing him to nine career picks and good for ninth on the Cornell all-time list. Sophomore linebacker Ryan Kelley and Justin Solomon also added interceptions in the second half, taking advantage of Sacred Heart quarterback R.J. Noel’s erratic passing.

“I’m very proud of how the secondary has been playing,” Gesualdi said. “We are being way more locked down this year than we have been in the past years. It’s opening up a lot of opportunities for people to get interceptions.”

Sophomore running back J.D. PicKell praised the effort of the defense in Saturday’s game, noting that the defense’s ability to get the ball back to the offense was crucial.

“There are so many playmakers on defense,” PicKell said. “They played lights out today, can’t say enough good things about them and what they did today.”

The turnovers seemed to always come in the Pioneers’ territory. Head coach David Archer ’05 said the defense’s knack for giving the offense great field position set up the Red’s comeback.

“It got us back in the game,” Archer said. “They were big all day.”

In a game in which sophomore quarterback Dalton Banks had trouble getting performing via air attack, he credited the defensive contributions to a majority of the team’s points.

“That set us up great,” Banks said of the four interceptions. “We got good field position in the second half we were able to score off of them get points on the board. Defense was huge with the turnovers, we just didn’t capitalize enough.”

Yet the high-flying, risk-taking style of defense also had its drawbacks.

Jumping a route, blitzing the quarterback or going for a strip tackle can backfire. And that was evident in Saturday’s loss.

When Cornell’s defense was buzzing, it rendered Sacred Heart’s potent offense powerless. But when the defense was lacking, the Pioneers made sure to take advantage.

“When you play aggressive defense to force takeaways,” Archer said, “you run the risk of giving up a big play.”

Every Sacred Heart touchdown drive included a play longer than 39 yards, plays that Gesualdi called “busted.” In every other drive, only one resulted in points — a field goal that ended the second quarter — and none came with a play of over 15 yards.

After Cornell jumped to an early 7-0 lead, a 76-yard kickoff return enabled the Pioneers to score and tie up the game. Later in the quarter, Sacred Heart’s Ose Imeokparia sprinted down the sideline for a 67-yard gain.

The Pioneers would score on the play that followed Imeokparia’s run. Sacred Heart’s third score of the game was a 58-yard catch-and-run to Imeokparia on third-and-12, and its final score came off a 39-yard catch and run that should have easily ended up as a short gain had it not been for ineffective tackling.

Halfway through the season, the capricious defense has had moments reminiscent of last year’s 1-9 record, but also times in which the squad appeared poised for a run at a conference championship.

With five games remaining in the season — all of them within the Ivy League — Cornell will need its defense to play its best if the team hopes to contend for the elusive conference crown.