While the Cornell football team has suffered two losses to open the season, the team has had two distinct reactions following them.
After playing a strong Delaware team, the message surrounding Cornell (0-2, 0-1 Ivy) was relatively positive — other than cleaning up a few miscues, primarily turnovers, the takeaway was to stick to business as usual and things would get off the ground.
But the following Yale game was eye-opening for the Red. To start Ivy play the way the team did — a game that was riddled with missed tackles, unfinished drives and turnovers — and to start the season 0-2 after last year’s 3-0 start, was a sobering moment that the team might not be where it needs to be.
“We’ve got to get better at execution. We have the leadership, we have the talent, we’ve got to go out there and execute in all phases,” said head coach David Archer ’05. “We expected to beat Yale by a couple of scores, and it was much more disappointing when that didn’t happen.”
Still in search for its first victory, the Red welcomes Colgate (1-3, 0-0 Patriot) to Schoellkopf Saturday for the team’s home opener. The game comes one year after Cornell’s dramatic 39-38 road victory over the Raiders despite a 25-point halftime deficit.
This year, however, Colgate loses its dynamic quarterback-receiver duo of gunslinger Jake Melville, who completed 62 percent of his passes for 399 yards and three touchdowns against Cornell last year, and wide receiver John Maddaluna, who went for a career high 261 yards and three touchdowns.
Colgate may also be without Pat Afriyie, senior defensive lineman who was selected as the Patriot League Preseason Defensive Player of the Year. Afriyie posted 10 sacks and 21 tackles-for-loss last year, ranking fourth nationally in both categories, but his status for Saturday is uncertain.
Colgate opened the season on the West coast, traveling to then-No. 23 Cal Poly. After coming into the fourth quarter with a commanding lead, Colgate held on for a 20-14 upset victory.
But since then, Colgate has been on a skid, dropping its next three games and giving up an average of just under 33 points a game, including 45 to Furman last week.
In both of the Cornell’s losses, it has been a tale of two halves — an abysmal opening but a strong finish against Delaware, and a crisp start but crippling second half against Yale.
Combining the second half of Delaware and the first half Yale, the team was only slightly outperformed, being outscored 28-24. Combining the other two halves, however, puts the Red at a minus-48 point differential, being outscored 62-14.
“That’s definitely been a big emphasis this week [on] being able to put together a full game,” said senior captain and linebacker Kurt Frimel. “The coaches are emphasizing finishing everything we do, finishing all the way through.”
And for Cornell, both sides of the ball share a portion of the blame. On offense, troubles have stemmed from a young offensive line that has not been able to protect the offense as well as the team would have hoped.
Reigning first-team All-Ivy running back Chris Walker has only rushed for 49 yards in the two games combined, averaging just 2.6 yards a carry. And while freshman Harold Coles has 112 yards under his name, 90 of those came on one play against Yale that went for a touchdown.
In addition, opposing defenses have found junior quarterback Dalton Banks repeatedly, as he has been sacked nine times in the past two games, for a total loss of 62 yards. Banks was banged up enough in the Yale game that he had to leave early. Archer is confident he will be in the lineup come Saturday, though.
“He’s out here running around today, he was out here running around yesterday, so [he’s good to go] for all indications,” Archer said.
While junior offensive lineman Henry Stillwell, the lone returning starter on the line from last season acknowledged that the offensive line has not played to its potential, he is not worried about the group’s overall youth. Rather, the message once again comes back to finishing.
“I don’t think the struggles are about experience. I have a ton of faith in these guys on the line and I think everyone has stepped up to the plate,” he said. “I think putting it together and finishing through is the next step — we have the talent to win games, just need to see it come together.”
On the defensive side, the story is even simpler — a glaring inability to stop the run. Cornell has given up a whopping 283.5 yards of rushing per game, including a 300 yard second half against Yale. And things will not get much easier with Colgate coming into town, a run-first offense that averages less than 120 through the air but nearly 150 yards on the ground on the backs of two strong tailbacks — Alex Matthews and James Holland.
“That’s our number one focus this week, we’ve got to stop the run. That’s all they do,” Frimel said. “They run the ball, then they try to beat you deep on the play-action-pass, so that’s the big focus this week, stop the run with our front seven.”
It could be easy for a team to get overwhelmed by such early-season struggles, but for Archer, the message to his team is clear: take a step back and simplify things.
“Sometimes, when you have an older group, you have a tendency to put more in,” Archer said, adding the message to his coordinators is that “If [we] need to pull back [some plays], if there’s too much in, pull back.”
Kickoff is set for 1:30 on Saturday in the first of Cornell’s rare four consecutive home games.