It’s anybody’s league.
At least that’s what the players on a confident Cornell football team will tell you. The Red is currently sitting in a tie for second place in the Ivy League, just one game back of Columbia as it heads into a primetime, nationally-televised matchup at Princeton Saturday at 7 p.m.
While the Red’s overall record is a less-than-stellar 2-4, the team’s 2-1 Ivy mark is its best since 2000, giving Cornell hope for its first league title since 1990. With an undefeated Columbia at the top and Harvard and Penn near the bottom, the conference has been turned upside down. And although Cornell has a tough road ahead of it, the team feels it has what it takes.
Coming off its Homecoming thrashing of Brown, the team’s confidence is understandable, but Princeton is leaps and bounds better than Brown, and the Red will need to play its best football to pull off the upset Saturday night. Here are three keys to a Cornell victory.
Pressure Princeton’s Quarterback
Princeton’s offense is scary good. The Tigers average over 40 points per game and nearly 500 yards of total offense. While they can run the ball, most of their offensive production comes through the air, from the arm of quarterback Chad Kanoff. The senior completes over 75 percent of passes for an average of 314 yards per game and has also thrown for 17 touchdowns and just five interceptions through six games.
So how can you stop someone like that? By pressuring him and putting him on his backside. Kanoff has gone untouched for much of the season, having been sacked just six times all year.
“He hasn’t been hit too many times this year so we have to do what we can to get to him and put a little pressure back there,” said sophomore defensive lineman Jordan Landsman.
Meanwhile, Cornell is second in the league with 20 sacks forced (despite allowing 23 to opposing defenses). Saturday night will be a true test for the Red’s defensive line that has been impressive all season. Can they keep up the good work and get past a dominant Princeton offensive line in order to sack, or at the very least hurry, Kanoff? If they can’t, they’d better hope their defensive backs, rated No. 1 in the league, have the night of their lives.
Don’t Be Afraid to Throw the Ball
It’s no secret that Cornell’s offensive gameplan has seen a major shift in the last few weeks. After struggling early on in the season, the Red began to focus more on the ground game, now running far more often than passing. In its last three games, Cornell ran the ball 67 percent of the time.
The strategy is working too. The Red’s offensive line is better suited to run block than to pass protect, and the unit has paved the way for some solid performances by the team’s slew of running backs.
There’s a problem, though. Princeton’s run defense is first in the Ivy League, giving up an average of just 71.5 rushing yards per game and only 2.5 yards per attempt. While Cornell head coach David Archer ’05 seemed committed to the run early in the week, the Red should not be afraid to pass the ball if Princeton’s vaunted front seven is giving it fits, though the ever-dangerous Kurt Holuba may be out.
Especially given the Tigers’ high-flying offense, Cornell may have to throw the ball as much as it runs it this game in order to keep up. Princeton’s pass defense actually ranks as one of the worst in the league, so junior quarterback Dalton Banks and company have a legitimate shot to do some damage.
Win the Turnover Battle
Despite a constant focus, Cornell has not been as successful in the turnover column as it would have hoped. The Red is minus-10 in turnovers — with just four takeaways through six games. Last year, that number was 20 by season’s end, so the Red has some serious catching up to do.
Against a team like Princeton, Cornell can really help its cause if it wins the turnover battle and takes the ball away from the explosive Tiger offense. Again, Princeton’s quarterback rarely turns the ball over, but if the Cornell pass rush can supply some pressure, mistakes become that much more likely. It’ll then be up to the Cornell defensive backs to make some plays.
“If you play them even in the turnover game,” Archer said, “it’s going to be tough to go score for score.” With that in mind, Cornell must go out looking for interceptions and forced fumbles wherever possible. If not, the group may struggle to keep the Tigers in check and could be in for a long Saturday night.