It took just two games for the Cornell football team to improve upon its record from last season. It took one more game for the team to top its win total from the previous two seasons.
It does not take a very hard look to notice that the Red is different from years previous. On the field, the team looks smoother offensively, consistently putting together offensive attacks, while the defense has kept the team in games.
A year after the team nearly clawed its way to a strong record to start its season, dropping close contests to Bucknell, Yale and Colgate, Cornell turned the table, beating all three opponents in thrilling fashion. The completed comebacks against Bucknell and Colgate appear to be marks of maturation, a sign that head coach David Archer ‘05 is starting to turn the ship, bringing a winning football program to Schoellkopf Field.
“Last year especially, the first three games we were very close to being 3-0 and to come that close and not have it no pay off, it was demoralizing for everyone, obviously,” said senior wide receiver Ben Rogers. “To have that flipped and feel like, O.K., we really have learned how to win and found out how to make that pay off, it’s really cool. It’s not this empty confidence.”
Despite losing its past three games, the Red has continued to show signs of continued improvement. In a conference in which three teams tied for the title last season — Harvard, Dartmouth and Penn — there is room for improvement in order for the team to make a run to the top of the Ivy League, but the early seasons victories have given Cornell an extra boost in confidence.
“We haven’t had this much success in a long time and we feel like this team is really good and we’re really confident, no matter who we go up against,” said junior cornerback Jelani King. “Just an overall great vibe with the teammates and we’re ready to go after it.”
Offensively, much of the team’s production in the passing game comes from veterans. Junior wide receiver James Hubbard leads the team, with 263 receiving yards, while seniors Ben Rogers and Marshall Deutz tie for second with 243 yards.
Despite the older core of receivers, much of the improvement comes from sophomore quarterback Dalton Banks, who earned the starting job this past offseason. Banks currently leads the conference with 1,495 passing yards and 12 touchdowns, though those totals come with an Ivy League-high nine interceptions.
Banks has looked poised under center for the Red and the coaching staff raves about the amount of preparation he puts into every opponent, while noting his ability to scramble and move in the pocket.
“[Banks] prepares so hard. He prepares in the weight room, the film room,” Archer said. “He’s always asking questions and his football IQ is really high. He understands coverage. He doesn’t forget stuff. He has a really great football mind and a really strong desire to be good.”
Defensively, the unit has been led by junior safety Nick Gesualdi, who leads all players in the Ivy League with five interceptions — fourth nationally — and is fifth in the conference with 50 tackles.
Leadership on the team stems from the four senior captains: linebacker Miles Norris — who is out for the season — Rogers, tight end Matt Sullivan and linebacker Jackson Weber. The four captains, according to Archer, have led an “inspired level of play and accountability from the players.” The head coach credited the leadership of the four captains and the entire senior class with sending a message at the half against Colgate that a comeback was possible.
Archer also said the upperclassmen were key in upping the team’s overall confidence. This was evident after the Red was picked to finish in last in the Ivy League before the season. The juniors and seniors on the team made sure not to let expectations set boundaries for results.
“We kind of always knew that we were better than people thought we were. The last two years, we were picked last in the Ivy League and although we didn’t do that great, we still didn’t come last in the Ivy League either of those years,” King said. “This year, we were picked eighth in the league again, but I think we knew we had some playmakers coming back, playmakers coming in and it was always us against the world.”
Despite recent struggles, it’s hard to look at Cornell football and not acknowledge the strides the team has made since Archer’s first season without Jeff Mathews ’13. And while the team made strides last year, the results are beginning to spill into the wins column.
“We work hard every offseason and going into that first game knowing that you worked hard, there’s a little bit in everyone that is like, ‘O.K., is this really going to pay off?’” Rogers said. “To see it pay off the way that it has the last few games, I think it’s really solidified that we are a good football team and what we’ve worked for has paid off, but we still have a long way to go.”
What were comebacks that fell short last year are now becoming victories and what were blow losses are now becoming heartbreakingly close defeats.
And for Archer and his team, it’s only the beginning.
“You can’t replicate being in tight ball games except for being in tight ball games,” Archer said. “To have all of that last year, we knew we could compete with people. This year, it’s about beating people. That’s the next progression.”