“You can definitely call us a run-first team,” was what Cornell football head coach David Archer confidently ’05 told The Sun just a few weeks back. That, however, was before junior first-team All-Ivy running back Chris Walker went down with a season-ending leg injury in the team’s upset win over Princeton.
Now, after its second consecutive abysmal showing Saturday afternoon against Columbia, the Cornell offense seems to have lost that identity.
Entering the 2017 season, all eyes were on junior quarterback Dalton Banks to continue his progression as the face of the Cornell offense. Banks’ 2016 numbers were near the top of the Ivy League across the board and also propelled him into the top five of several Cornell offensive categories. But through the first several games, it was clear the passing attack was not the route to success for the 130th installment of Cornell football.
Banks’ struggles and an offensive line better suited to run block meant it was time for a change, so Archer and Co. turned to the run. Backing up Walker before his injury was a more-than-competent backfield that featured sophomore Harold Coles and senior Jack Gellatly — both of which were critical in turning the season around.
The Red began to run the ball nearly three times for every one pass — and it worked. A strong ground game, subsequent play action and time of possession victories carried the team to victories over Harvard, Brown and Princeton for a spot atop the league standings for the first time in decades.
Walker’s numbers through just under seven games were not mindblowing, but was the most dynamic playmaker on the team, playing a key role in its success. Not only was he the team’s leading rusher, he had also caught more passes than any of the team’s receivers.
Gellatly, Coles and freshman S.K. Howard were also contributors in the team’s three wins.
But then Walker went down.
“[Walker’s] an eraser, he erases everyone’s mistakes,” Archer said after Saturday’s loss to the Lions. “He is a guy that is different … We sorely miss him.”
And since then, it’s been all downhill. Cornell managed just 52 yards on the ground in its shutout loss to Dartmouth and, apart from some big gains in garbage time, had very limited success against the Lions. If not for a meaningless touchdown late in the fourth quarter, it would have been two consecutive shutouts for Cornell for the first time in over 60 years.
“I think we found a little groove there in the middle of the year, really establishing the run,” Archer said. “The last two weeks we haven’t been able to establish it, and that’s probably been the biggest difference. When you are able to run the ball effectively you are able to open up a lot of different things.”
“They started to shut the run down and we couldn’t make the plays we needed to the last two games,” Banks said after completing 14 of 26 passes for just 134 yards and an interception against Columbia. “We couldn’t make it all come together. Overall you have to be balanced and keep a rhythm going, and we just haven’t been able to do that recently.”
After the run failed him last week, Archer stressed he would stick with it in a cold contest against Columbia. But it failed once more. Gellatly and Coles could not solve either of the two defenses, and the Red limped to the finish line on offense in two straight Saturdays.
“Both [Columbia and Dartmouth] play a very different style of defense,” Archer said. “They have done some good things and played well, but I don’t think we’ve played our best. … It’s a combination.”
Whatever it is, without Walker, it isn’t cutting it.