This post has been updated.
NEWARK, Del. — Comparing teams of different years tends to be a taboo subject for Cornell football — or any college team in any sport, for that matter. Student-athletes graduate and new talent pours in annually to make each team unique and evaluations of one year to the next less relevant.
But two straight years of week one contests against Delaware makes it hard to shy away from the visible differences between Cornell of 2017 and Cornell now. The Red lost its second consecutive season opener to the Blue Hens, 27-10, on Saturday but showed off what it hopes to be a refined product from last year’s 3-7 squad.
“I think we played a much more competitive game. Didn’t give the ball away [but] didn’t take it away,” head coach David Archer ’05 said of this year’s loss compared to last season’s, when a first-play fumble began a string of five turnovers in the first half of a 41-14 Blue Hens victory.
The better showing came when it wasn’t even clear who would lead the offense onto the field for the first play. After all the waiting and wondering, it was ultimately two-year starter senior Dalton Banks who got the start and majority of snaps under center.
For Banks and his troops, it was a flip-flop of a start when compared to last year’s. The Red’s offense began the afternoon crisp, marching into Delaware territory while never losing a single yard in 13 plays. But after failing to finish it off in the end zone, junior Nickolas Null’s 28-yard field goal salvaged the drive and got Cornell on the board first.
Banks and the offense would never regain form in the first half. Seeing such, Archer elected to test out his tri-quarterback system, giving junior Mike Catanese and sophomore Richie Kenney some snaps — the first of Kenney’s varsity career.
But while the strategy changed, the product stayed pat. After the field goal, Cornell put together just one more drive in the first half that netted more than six yards, good enough for just 85 total yards in the half.
“There were a lot of small things here and there that makes a difference,” Banks said of the sputtering drives. “It was hard to get a rhythm. We needed first downs and just weren’t getting them. … It’s hard to win a football game when you only put up three points for most of the game.”
Cornell’s offense had to trudge forward without regular contributions from sophomore wide receiver Eric Gallman and senior running back Chris Walker. Both coming off season-ending injuries in 2017, Gallman was targeted just thrice, making his first catch since week two of last season in Saturday’s fourth quarter, while Walker just twice for a single reception that lost a yard.
“He’s just going to keep getting stronger as the season goes on,” Archer said of Walker. “I wanted to make sure we got him going, but at the same time, we need him for the league games, too. … I think we just keep monitoring him and increasing his reps.”
It wasn’t until garbage time on the final drive that the Cornell offense finally rediscovered a rhythm. Catanese led the charge with 75 yards in 11 plays, capped off by his first career touchdown pass, a nine-yard teardrop to junior wide receiver Davy Lizana.
Delaware, meanwhile, needed a moment. The home team failed to convert a first down on its first two drives, but once the Blue Hens clicked, they soared. A touchdown on the last play of the first quarter and five-yard rush from quarterback Pat Kehoe in the second quarter put Cornell in a 14-3 hole. Delaware needed just seven plays for over 70 yards on its first two touchdown drives.
The Blue Hens added another touchdown and pair of field goals in the fourth quarter before Cornell’s depth took over to get some playing experience against a quality FCS opponent.
Big plays were a thorn for the Cornell defense, almost single-handedly due to Delaware wide receiver Joe Walker, who was the Blue Hens’ quarterback in last season’s matchup. Playing against a Cornell secondary without Nick Gesualdi ’18, Delaware’s Walker finished the day with 154 yards receiving, including three catches of at least 39 yards, and a touchdown.
But the Cornell defense kept the game well within reach for the offense by stepping up in crunch time to keep the game competitive.
“That’s the mentality,” said junior cornerback David Jones. “We know they are going to make a couple plays on us, but we are confident in each other and we know what we can do and that we can stop them.”
On the flipside, while Cornell’s offense didn’t concede five turnovers like last season, it didn’t muster enough firepower of its own.
“Just didn’t have enough key plays,” Archer said. “When you are going to keep the game competitive, there’s going to be key moments where you have to deliver, and we just weren’t able to do that today.”