The week leading up to Saturday’s mammoth win over Harvard — the first over the Crimson since 2005 — the credo preached around the Cornell football locker room was patience.
Patience that, despite an 0-3 start, things on defense were starting to come together and that the team’s Ivy record was just 0-1.
“It’s any given Saturday,” senior captain and safety Nick Gesualdi said before the Harvard game. “Anybody can win in this league. … We feel we still have a great chance, we match up well against every team. … You never know what’s going to happen until the final whistle blows.”
As the forecasted last place team in the Ivy League, Cornell had its turn to play Cinderella this past weekend with its upset over projected No. 1 Harvard. Also this season, the other No. 1 pick, Princeton, and No. 2 pick Penn have both fallen to lower-ranked foes, cementing the belief for the Red that everything goes out the window upon coin flip.
“A lot of guys don’t like Harvard, so that was an amazing feeling,” said senior safety Justin Solomon about the win. “But it’s no bigger than any other game. … [That was] definitely a huge emotional high, [but] it’s important is getting back to a more level vibe so we can focus and be ready for Bucknell.”
Even if the victory over Harvard is just one tally in the win column, it clearly means so much more to the program, even they did not admit it. For head coach David Archer ’05, it’s the first time he has ever downed the Crimson in his decade-plus years on East Hill, as both an offensive lineman and coach for Cornell.
“I’m sure it’s what it feels like to get a graduate degree,” Archer said. “You pour in years of work on a singular focus and it happens. Far too many years of losing against Harvard. … I just feel great for the guys. It’s a great springboard.”
And on the field, an upset of this magnitude over a rival like Harvard could be the point at which the team looks back following the end of the season, as what turned the year around.
“Going into the week we knew we could play with them,” said senior tight end Hayes Nolte. “Coming out and executing and finally seeing all three phases being put together has us trending upward and it was a pivotal point to turn the season around.”
Like patience, confidence is another word that has never run short in the locker room, and now, with a little momentum to drive that confidence, Cornell will look to create a win streak when it welcomes Bucknell to Schoellkopf for the third installment of its homestand before Homecoming next weekend.
A year ago, Bucknell was the first victim of Cornell’s surprising undefeated start to the season. And 2017’s installment of the Bison will be without the all-important offensive tackle Julién Davenport, who was drafted in the fourth round of the 2017 NFL Draft by the Houston Texans.
Without Davenport, one of the most decorated individuals in Bucknell history, the Bison have struggled on offense, averaging just about 65 rushing yards per game and 188.6 yards per game in the air.
But where the Bison really thrive is on the defensive side of the ball. Bucknell leads the Patriot League in defense with just 309.8 yards allowed per game — about 70 yards fewer than the next place team.
The Bison have also forced 10 turnovers on the season, and while Cornell showed an improved ability to protect the ball against Harvard, turnovers plagued the team in the first three games. Archer is cognizant the team must remain wary to not allow the patterns to resurface.
“It comes down to the run game,” Archer said. “When you throw the ball 55 times [a game], bad things happen. When you run the ball 55 times [a game], bad things don’t happen.”
Cornell will have to do this perhaps missing some key contributors. In the win over Harvard, the Red completely flipped its offensive schemes to adapt to Harvard’s defense. Cornell attempted 59 rushes out of a total of 77 offensive plays, running for 233 yards to more than double its 2017 rushing total.
That production did not come without any casualties. Sophomore running back Harold Coles and senior Jack Gellatly are battling ankle injuries, and their status for the coming weekend is uncertain. To complement junior Chris Walker, Archer pointed to Josh Sweet as someone who might get some additional touches this weekend. The senior running back has only three carries in 2017 for 11 yards but did score a touchdown in Cornell’s loss to Delaware.
Cornell will also get another chance to employ a new tactic that came to light in the win over the Crimson. Archer reaffirmed that junior quarterback Dalton Banks remains the starter, but he has recently shared some snaps with senior Jake Jatis.
With this system, Jatis, who has been lauded as an incredible all-around athlete, found the endzone twice against Harvard, and the hope going forward is to keep the hits and pressure off Banks for a prolonged period of time. With the added depth that has come over the years, Archer is confident he can keep fresh, capable legs on the field at all times.
“That was a great change-up that provided a spark,” Archer said. “It’s something we can expand upon in the future.”
What has been coined “The Battle of the ‘Nells” will be the final out-of-conference game Cornell sees in 2017, giving the team one last chance to make adjustments before the final stretch of Ivy play.
With that in mind, the team is looking forward to this weekend but remains vigilant that the ultimate prize still sits further down the road.
“We control our own destiny at this point,” Solomon said. “Pressure makes diamonds.”