For the first time in decades, Cornell football enters its yearly matchup with Dartmouth first in the Ivy League standings. After knocking off two preseason No. 1 teams Harvard and Princeton, the Red is proving it is no joke and has a legitimate shot at the league title.
But with the final three games taking place against a fellow No. 1 team in Columbia, No. 2 in Dartmouth and a perennially tough Penn program, there are no easy games from here on out, and the team’s next big challenge takes place this Saturday in Hanover.
“We’re not playing to keep anything or protect anything,” said head coach David Archer ’05. “We’re still going after it. These are three more huge games, and there’s still a lot more to play.”
Last season, Cornell lost to Dartmouth, 17-13, after surrendering a double-digit fourth quarter lead to drop its fifth consecutive contest and its eighth straight against the Green.
But the team has used last year’s defeat as added motivation, a constant theme throughout this season’s “Revenge Tour,” in which Cornell has attempted — and so far succeeded— to avenge losses suffered in 2016. The Red can check Harvard, Brown and Princeton off that list and is using the same fuel heading to Dartmouth.
“Last year was definitely tough losing that game,” said sophomore cornerback and kick returner David Jones. “That wasn’t a game we should’ve lost, and we kind of gave it away. We’re really harping on [the revenge tour] this week, and we really want to get that revenge because we gave [the game] to them last year.”
Dartmouth (5-2, 2-2 Ivy) began the season with five straight wins but has lost its last two to fall out of the league’s top spot. The Green has remained competitive, though, and has talent up and down its roster.
“They should’ve beaten Harvard, they should’ve beaten Columbia,” Archer said. “These guys could easily be undefeated and tops in the league.”
Dartmouth’s numbers are solid across the board, but the group does not excel in any one particular phase of the game.
Quarterback Jack Heneghan leads a capable offense and has thrown for 13 touchdowns and just four interceptions this season. The team averages 165 yards per game on the ground, with Ryder Stone getting the bulk of the carries.
“[Heneghan] is a really great thrower, but when you watch him on film he’s got a great sense of the pocket and he will take off for first downs and extended drives,” Archer said. “We’ve got to keep him in the pocket and get him sacked.”
The Green defense has given up an average of just 332 yards per game and ranks in the top half of the league defending both the run and the pass.
“They play such base defense, but they do it really well,” Archer said. “They run to the ball, they shed blocks and they’re just really fundamentally sound.”
“They’re a really well-coached team,” said senior tight end Hayes Nolte. “They don’t do a lot of crazy stuff, but their defensive line is really big and really physical. We’re definitely going to have to be physical and match their intensity on the line of scrimmage.”
For Nolte and the rest of the Cornell offense, physicality is something they have embraced in recent weeks.
“I feel like we’ve totally figured out our identity as a team, and everyone’s bought in,” he said. “We’ve always prided ourselves on being the blue-collar Ivy. We want our opponents knowing that when you play Cornell, it’s going to be a physical game.”
Along the same lines, the Red has become a run-first team — a label Archer is proud of. In its previous four games, Cornell has run the ball far more than it has thrown, and the team’s talented group of tailbacks has gotten the job done.
Losing junior Chris Walker against Princeton is a big blow, but senior captain Jack Gellatly, classmate Josh Sweet and sophomore Harold Coles have already shown they can be effective when called upon.
“You have to take [Walker’s] production and spread it out over everybody else,” Archer said. “And that means more for Jack and Harold and more for some others.”
If the Red can beat Dartmouth, a pivotal week nine matchup with Columbia would loom. But the team is certainly not overlooking this one. Either way, the Red is playing meaningful football in November, and that is nothing to scoff at.
“It’s a great feeling,” said sophomore punter/kicker Nickolas Null, whose 43-yard field goal was the difference versus Princeton. “Every one of them is hungry to win games, and they all have this chip on their shoulder that a lot of people predicted we weren’t going to be very good, and they’re coming out here and showing that they can play ball. It’s an us against the world mentality.”
“We believed in it the whole time,” Nolte added, “but it’s great to see it translating into wins and it being week eight with us tied for first.”
Kickoff is set for 1:30 Saturday at Dartmouth’s Memorial Field.