On Oct. 1, Cornell football pulled off as improbable an upset as ever. The Red defeated the nationally-ranked Colgate Raiders in Hamilton, NY, after trailing by 23 points in the second quarter. Sophomore quarterback Dalton Banks threw for over 450 yards and 4 touchdowns — in just his third career start — and the Red’s offense clicked on all cylinders.
The historic comeback gave the Red a 3-0 record, its best start since 2008. After two consecutive one-win seasons, it looked like Cornell football was ushering in a new era of winning football.
Just over a month later, though, the excitement has all but vanished. The Red has dropped each of its last four games, including an embarrassing 56-7 demolishing at the hands of Princeton last Saturday at Schoellkopf Field. Cornell (3-4, 1-3 Ivy) now finds itself in desperate need of a win this weekend to avoid falling into last place in the league.
The Red’s opponent on Saturday – Dartmouth (3-4, 0-4 Ivy) – currently owns that last place spot and is still looking for its first Ivy win, just one year removed from sharing the league championship with Harvard and Penn. The meeting is the 100th ever between the two programs, and if Cornell wants to halt its losing streak at four, it must follow these three keys to victory.
Return to the Ground Game
Going into the season, the Cornell offense looked to showcase a trio of running backs: sophomores Chris Walker and J.D. PicKell and junior Jack Gellatly. Through the first few weeks, the Red was having success running the ball, but as of late, the team has been unable to get much going.
Last week, Cornell’s running game was non-existent. They ran the ball just 20 times for 49 yards, less than 2.5 yards-per-carry. To its credit, Princeton’s run-defense is by far the best in the league and has given up just 2.4 yards-per-carry. Some of this may also be due to injuries both Walker and Gellatly that have limited their time this season.
Regardless, the Red must do more with its ground game, and this week is the team’s best chance to do that. Dartmouth’s defense is ranked first overall in points allowed but ranks seventh in stopping the run. On average, it yields 172 yards-per-game to opposing running backs. Cornell is second to last in the league in rushing yards, but facing Dartmouth should give Walker and company a shot at reestablishing a running game. If I were the offensive coordinator, I’d look to run the ball at least 25 times this week. Doing so should also take some of the weight off Banks’ shoulders.
Don’t Fall Behind Early
Week after week, the Red has dug itself into a hole early in games. Through seven weeks, Cornell has fallen behind early in five of them – in many cases, by multiple touchdowns. This has been truly even in some of the team’s wins. While the Red has been an excellent second-half team the majority of the season, playing from behind every Saturday catches up to any team. Given the Red’s current four game losing streak, giving up the game’s first couple of scores could really hurt the team’s mentality.
In addition, if Cornell is losing by two touchdowns early, it will have no choice but to once again abandon the running game and put all of its eggs in its sophomore quarterback’s basket. This does not fall entirely on the offense, however.
Last week, the defensive unit gave up 35 points in what seemed like the blink of an eye and never gave the offense a chance to get back in the game. Dartmouth’s offense is nothing like the up-tempo attack of Princeton, but the Red defense still must come out ready to go in drive number one. If not, this may be yet another long day for them.
Stay Disciplined on Defense – Turnovers Aren’t Everything
After subpar defensive performances in nearly every game this season, it’s about time someone started talking about the Cornell defense. The unit ranks last or second to last in the Ivy League in nearly every defensive statistic.
The Red gives up, on average, 452 yards-per-game of total offense and over 30 points. It has surrendered well over 1300 yards just on the ground through only seven games; the passing defense has not been much better.
The one statistic in which the Red does not rank toward the bottom is takeaways. Although the team failed to take the ball away from Princeton last week, the Red has 11 interceptions and four fumble recoveries on the season – good for first in the league.
Earlier in the season, it was via these takeaways that the defense kept Cornell in games, despite giving up huge amounts of yardage in the process. At this point, though, the defense’s collective mentality to get turnovers at all costs has come back to bite it.
Lunging for interceptions or going for strips instead of wrapping guys up can lead to broken tackles and big plays, and as of late, they certainly have. These big plays have killed the Red, and if it wants to fare better this week, the defense must focus on playing smart, disciplined defense rather than gambling on turnovers.
Action gets underway Saturday at 1:30.