After sprinting out of the gate to an undefeated start, Cornell football has since dropped its last two contests and is looking to get back to its winning ways this Saturday at Brown.
The Red (3-2, 1-1 Ivy) makes the trip to Providence to take on a Brown team (1-4, 0-2 Ivy) that currently sits at the bottom of the Ivy League. The matchup is the first of five straight games against Ancient Eight opponents to close out Cornell’s 2016 campaign.
The Red’s last two losses have come against top competition. Three-time defending Ivy champion Harvard (4-1, 2-0) handed the Red its first loss of the season in Cambridge two weeks ago, and Sacred Heart (5-1) held off a second-half charge to top Cornell 31-24 in Ithaca. The Red’s come from behind effort in the defeat made it another tough loss to take. Still, the players are confident and excited going into the most important stretch of the season.
“The guys are all focused and determined,” said head coach David Archer ’05. “Our confidence is without a doubt still there, and I think it’s been one of the best weeks [of practice] we’ve had.”
With a split 1-1 record, Cornell is currently tied for fourth in the Ivy League, but Archer said he feels that – given the breakdown of each program this year – the conference crown is certainly still up for grabs.
“The Ivy League this year is anybody’s league,” he said. “That’s the coolest thing heading into this part of the season.”
After winning its first game of the season, Brown is still looking for victory number two. The Bears have lost four straight, including two Ivy matchups against Harvard and Princeton.
Because of this record, senior captain Matt Sullivan said he feels good about his team’s chances, and is not particularly worried about the Brown roster.
“We feel confident going up against Brown,” the tight end said. “It’s a roster that isn’t as talented as those other teams like Harvard and Sacred Heart.”
To Brown’s credit, its defense is limiting opponents to just over 300 yards of offense so far — the best in the league — and it boasts eight takeaways and 13 sacks. Linebacker William Twyman has led the way with 46 tackles through just five games to go along with an interception and five tackles for a loss.
Although the roster may not resemble that of recent opponents, the Red is still not taking the game lightly.
“Like everyone in the Ivy League, Brown’s a good football team,” said senior captain and linebacker Jackson Weber. “Anyone can really beat anyone.”
In fact, Cornell has lost to Brown a resounding eight straight times. In its last 15 meetings with Brown, the Red is just 2-13. Despite this lopsided record of late, the team is ready to get its revenge come game-time.
“We’ve put a good week of work in and we’re excited to get to Providence,” Weber said.
The Red will look to capitalize on the Bears’ week offense, which has struggled all season. The Bears are averaging under 20 points per game, and quarterback Kyle Moreno has completed just 51 percent of his passes. On the ground, Brown has also struggled to get much of anything going thus far.
Cornell’s defense — which gave up big play after big play in the first half of last week’s game — hopes to limit similar breakdowns and avoid falling behind early.
Weber and the entire defensive unit have paid particular attention to fixing this problem.
“Big plays can really kill you, so we’ve been focusing on our assignments all week,” he said.
Archer chalked it up to “a guy missing a gap or missing a tackle.” He chose instead to focus on the takeaways his defense has been getting all season.
“They took the ball away five times last week,” Archer said. “Those guys swarmed around and played with great tenacity.”
Cornell’s defense has been taking the ball away at a staggering rate. It already has 13 takeaways; junior safety Nick Gesualdi leads the team with four interceptions — two of which came last week.
Weber gave credit to defensive coordinator Jared Backus and his group’s maturity over the last several seasons.
“We seniors are in the fourth year of our defense with Coach Backus, and from the start he put a huge emphasis on takeaways,” Weber said. “You see it in games and in practice — we’re going for the ball on every single play, and his culture has really sunk into our program.”
On the other side of the ball, the Red has struggled recently. Sophomore Quarterback Dalton Banks has not quite been the same since throwing for over 450 yards and four touchdowns against Colgate in week three.
Banks put up underwhelming numbers against Sacred Heart — just 15 of 38 for 117 yards and an interception. The Sacred Heart defense used a unique blitzing scheme that brought pass rushers from all over the field and seemed to disrupt Banks’ progressions.
Sullivan said he is not at all concerned about his quarterback, however, instead giving Sacred Heart’s defense the credit.
“I think you’ve gotta tip your hat off to Sacred Heart’s defense,” he said. “Their scheme is unconventional — they blitz a lot of guys from a lot of different areas. … I think it’s the first time Dalton has seen a defense like that.”
Sullivan went on to praise his QB’s development — particularly impressive for a sophomore — and said he is confident he will bounce back this weekend.
The quarterback’s head coach also complimented his competitive nature.
“He’s a gamer,” Archer said. “He’s a really big time competitor.”
Cornell also looks forward to the return of key offensive weapons, wide receiver Ben Rogers and running back Chris Walker. Rogers, a senior, and Walker, a sophomore, both sat out last week’s game against Sacred Heart, but will make the trip to Providence hoping to play.
“Saturday was tough without those two guys,” Archer said. “Those two are a huge part of our offense that we missed last Saturday, and we’re excited that they’ll be around this Saturday.”
That kickoff is set for Saturday at noon at Brown Stadium.