This post has been updated.
Winless entering Saturday and picked to finish last in the Ivy League, Cornell football wasn’t supposed to even compete with preseason No. 1 Harvard.
But after seeing Columbia upset Princeton and Dartmouth down Penn last weekend, the Red knew anything could happen in a historic Ivy League rivalry matchup.
Cornell scored 17 unanswered points to beat the Crimson for the first time in 12 years, 17-14, behind a dominant defensive effort and strong running game to pick up its first win of the season and improving its league record to 1-1.
“So proud of my kids, so proud of the staff [for] overcoming adversity, overcoming the frustration of not getting games we thought we should’ve [and] having the resolve to go fix things that need to be fixed and show up against a good Harvard team with a victory,” head coach David Archer ’05 said of his team. “It takes a lot to be disappointed, to have your mistakes pointed out and then to have the resolve to go correct them and then play that well.”
Cornell’s stifling defense stood tall after giving up 14 first-half points by holding the Crimson scoreless the final 30 minutes, forcing punt after punt and flustering Harvard quarterback Jake Smith. The true freshman, who in previous games had split time with senior Joe Viviano, went 8-14 for 161 yards and was sacked five times.
It also was not exactly a balanced attack that powered the Cornell offense — running backs junior Chris Walker, sophomore Harold Coles and senior Jack Gellatly led the way with 59 total rushing attempts, compared to just 18 throws. In contrast, Cornell averaged 33 rushes per game and 45 pass attempts per game entering Saturday’s contest.
The Red more than doubled its 2017 rush total Saturday, shredding the Harvard defense for 233 yards on the ground behind 93 yards from Walker, 68 from Coles and 49 from Gellatly. The trio averaged almost four yards per carry.
“Our advantage was our offensive line in run blocking, we thought [Harvard’s] advantage would be their defensive line on pass plays,” Archer said, explaining his game-strategy. “We thought Dalton was getting hit a lot. We just kind of wanted to take some pressure off him [and] ask him to do less.”
Harvard’s first half scoring drives of 72 and 55 yards put Cornell, whose offense came up empty on its first three possessions, in serious need of some points. Immediately following Harvard’s second score, the offense responded with a 15-play, 87-yard drive — in which all the plays but one plays were runs — capped off by senior quarterback Jake Jatis’s first of two rushing touchdowns.
Down 14-7, the Cornell defense went to work, forcing a quick three-and-out to go into the locker room with some confidence by keeping the deficit to just one touchdown.
In the first two games of the season, Cornell’s defense was lost, allowing over 440 yards in each contest. But since, the team allowed just 270 yards to Colgate last weekend — the lowest amount given up under Archer — and shaved that number down even more by just giving up 223 to Harvard Saturday. Crimson running back Charlie Booker III had just 56 yards and no touchdowns.
“They were dominant on the line of scrimmage today — gritty, tough, hard-nosed, just awesome,” Archer said of his defense. “These guys just swarmed to the ball, they got off blocks, they just bought into [defensive coordinator Jared] Backus’s system and just flew around. It was really fun to watch. They played their tails off.”
The Red’s offense did just enough in a come-from-behind victory. Jatis’s pair of two-yard rushing touchdowns led the way, and the Red took care of the football, committing only one turnover and scoring 17 unanswered points.
To start the third quarter, it looked like the Crimson offense had some life as it raced its way to the Cornell 20 after a 27-yard pass and a 30-yard Booker run, the back’s only big play in the game. Cornell junior linebacker Reis Seggebruch sacked Smith on third down and Harvard’s Jake McIntryre’s field goal attempt sailed wide left.
Though minutes earlier it seemed Harvard was poised to run away with a two-score lead, this momentum swing proved to be the turning point. On the ensuing drive, Cornell marched 74 yards, eating up nearly six minutes, as Jatis punched in his second touchdown. Junior quarterback Dalton Banks’ key 30-yard completion on 2nd and 18 to sophomore wide receiver Owen Peters set up the score.
Two key problems for the offense in its first three games were protecting Banks and failure to punch in points in the red zone. Zero sacks and 3-3 in trips to the red zone is about as good as it gets, especially for a team that allowed nine sacks last week and has been plagued by stalled-out drives.
Banks went 11-14 with 117 passing yards and one interception after tossing at least three in every game prior. The central focus of the offense in past weeks, Banks took a backseat as Jatis’s role expanded and the effective running back trio of Walker, Coles and Gellatly picked up over 200 yards of offense. Walker added 57 receiving yards.
“I think we were trying to rely on Chris too much. We were asking him and Dalton in the first three games to do too much and we kinda said, you know what, we got some other guys who can help shoulder the load here and they responded to the call,” Archer said. “Don’t get me wrong, Dalton Banks and Chris Walker still contributed hugely to this victory today, [but] it’s weird, sometimes in football when you’re asked to do less you actually produce more.”
Punting to start the fourth quarter, sophomore Nickolas Null pinned the Crimson at its own one-yard line, setting up his team’s defense for a key three-and-out stop. The Harvard punt gave the Red good field position with a chance to take a lead. A 33-yard sprint by Coles set up Zach Mays’ 27-yard field goal to give the Red a lead it wouldn’t relinquish thanks to an interception by sophomore linebacker Dylan Otolski on the final Harvard drive. With just a kneel left to ice the game, Cornell was well on its way to its first win over Harvard in a dozen years.
Both Archer and Banks turned down an offer to play college football for the Crimson, and offensive coordinator Joe Villapiano was a 12-year coach in Cambridge.
For them especially, picking up the first win of the year and beating a tough Ivy League opponent is exciting. Doing so as the projected last-place team over the forecasted No. 1 team, on top of ending a 12-year skid, is particularly sweet for the Red.
“It was so cool, just to see how happy the players were. Watching them sing ‘Cornell Victorious’ to the fans, jumping around in the locker room. … It was a great feeling,” Archer said. “I told my fiancée, it was the second best day of my life. Getting engaged to her was number one, but this is a close number two.”
Winless no longer, Cornell will look to make it two straight when it welcomes Bucknell to Schoellkopf next Saturday for its third of four consecutive home games.