In 2014, winless Cornell battled winless Columbia in New York City in a matchup dubbed “the worst college football game in the worst college football town,” by ESPN subsidiary FiveThirtyEight.
How far we’ve come.
This year’s game features two teams in contention for the Ivy League title. The Red (3-5, 3-2 Ivy League) and the Lions (6-2, 3-2) are locked in a four-way tie for second place with two games left in the season. For the first time in decades, the Cornell-Columbia matchup has implications for the conference crown.
“We always have a different mindset when we play Columbia,” said sophomore running back Harold Coles, “but now that it’s for something, everybody is a little bit more focused.”
For the seniors, who stuck with the program through a pair of 1-9 seasons early in their career, this game holds particular significance.
“Those guys didn’t quit,” fifth-year head coach David Archer ’05 said of his first recruiting class. “They’ve put Cornell in a position we haven’t been in almost two decades. They’ve just done an unbelievable job and I’m so proud of them and more is yet to come, I really feel that.”
As freshmen and sophomores on the one-win teams, many of the current seniors were once forced to play when they were not ready, since there was little depth above them. Now as seniors, they have improved to a level where Cornell does not need to start underclassmen.
The younger guys see this senior class as a source of inspiration.
“It’s really cool because they’ve come from a program that was struggling,” Coles said. “To see them and the work that they put in and the dedication they show in the offseason to get to the point where we’ve gotten to is really cool. … It’s just an extra bit of drive that you get from every senior.”
Despite struggles early on, the senior class has always found success against Columbia. Cornell has not lost to the Lions since the seniors were in high school. Last year, the Red triumphed over Columbia in a 42-40 thrilling shootout in New York City to once again claim the Empire State Bowl.
Yet despite recent victories over the Lions, the men of Cornell football have tried to solely focus on this year’s contest.
“We never really try to compare teams from past years,” said senior captain and safety Nick Gesualdi. “I feel like people do that to us and look what happened this year. We don’t want to underestimate them at all.”
In the game last year, then-sophomore running back Chris Walker starred for Cornell, scampering his way to 178 yards and a trio of touchdowns, his only three rushing scores of the year. But with Walker now out for the year with a knee injury, Cornell will have to try to replicate his production in other ways, a task that proved difficult in last week’s shutout loss to Dartmouth in which the Red accumulated just 52 yards on the ground.
“Chris is a special player so not one person can do what he does,” Coles said. “He can catch the ball, he can run the ball. Not one person can fill the role as big as him, but I think we all know that we can put it together and still come back.”
Coles pointed out that, while Walker missed the end of the Princeton game, Cornell was still able to orchestrate the shocking upset, presenting Coles and his team an encouraging sign heading into the home stretch.
“We didn’t even have Chris at the end of the Princeton game and we were able to come back,” Coles said. “We just know we got to be even more of a team.”
With the running game struggling last week, the entire offense was largely ineffective and failed to score against Dartmouth’s stout defense. Archer said he knows, after the stinging loss, the offense is ready to bounce back.
“Any time you get shutout, it doesn’t feel good,” the head coach said. “And so these offensive guys especially are ready to get to practice, that’s for sure.”
Emotions are running high entering the game: it’s effectively an elimination game for contention for the Ivy title; it’s senior day for the class of 2018; it’s the Empire State Bowl featuring the only two Ivy League schools that share a state.
That being said, despite all the storylines, Archer said he hopes his team will lock in by the time the game starts.
“I’m hoping around kickoff we just kind of get all that aside and focus on our task at hand, because there should be no shortage of emotion,” Archer said.
The action against Columbia kicks off at 1:30 p.m. Saturday at Schoellkopf and will also be broadcast by SNY. The team’s 25 seniors will be honored in a ceremony before the game.