Everything seems to be in place for Cornell football to be much improved this season, but an early-season gauntlet schedule-wise may make improvement hard to showcase in results.
After losing to tough non-conference foe Delaware in week one and Ivy League favorite Yale in week two, Cornell — which played the Blue Hens and Bulldogs closer than it did in 2017, but still suffered losses — will host Sacred Heart this weekend in the second of three consecutive home games.
Even if the losses are less surprising against what Cornell believes to be higher-quality teams, it stings to not have a crooked number in the win column thus far. But the team hopes the early-season grind will pay off come week eight or nine, when they would like an Ivy title to be in play.
“We’re blessed to have a harder schedule than a lot of Ivy League schools,” said senior defensive back DJ Woullard, who will move back to cornerback after starting the season at safety. “We do play a lot of harder teams especially out of conference. Teams like Harvard, Yale and Princeton blow out the teams they play but they don’t really get good competition so [we’re prepared] when we have big games like last year against Princeton.”
After Sacred Heart, Cornell hosts perennial Ivy contender Harvard before a week five trip to nationally-ranked No. 23 Colgate. Cornell will have played five games before it gets a matchup it’s favored to win — week six at Brown. So while Saturday’s tilt with the Pioneers is a non-league contest, the Red is determined to put a tally in the win column during its tough first-half schedule.
The Pioneers come into the game with three wins already, having blown out opponents Lafayette, Bucknell and Wagner by a combined 72 points. In the three wins, Sacred Heart has scored 35.3 points per game and allowed just 11.3. Its scoring defense is ranked eighth-best in the FCS.
The stout Pioneer defense is likely to prove challenging for a Cornell offense that has struggled to move the ball. The Red scored just 10 points — seven of them in garbage time — against Delaware before a better performance against Yale aided by two long touchdowns from junior running back Harold Coles.
“We got to go with the matchups we think are good, and for us we really think we can run the football on anybody,” said head coach David Archer ’05. “We got to try to establish that and then we got to make sure we can take some shots and get some big plays over the top, but they certainly do have great defensive stats. They create a lot of negative plays defensively [and] they have a great pass rusher.”
Senior quarterback Dalton Banks and the Red’s offense will look to find a rhythm while slowing down Chris Agyemang — who has five sacks through three games — and the Sacred Heart defense.
“I think it’s just getting everything smoothed out,” said sophomore wide receiver Eric Gallman, who is back this season after missing eight games last season with a foot injury. “It takes all 11 to make something shake on offense. I think as we continue to get the timing down with the quarterback, with the line, with us receivers running our routes, I think everything will take care of itself.”
Defensively, after successfully slowing Yale’s star running back Zane Dudek last week, Cornell will face another tough tailback. Jordan Meachum has averaged 128.7 rushing yards per game for the Pioneers. Quarterback Kevin Duke has seven passing touchdowns and two rushing scores.
“They have a lot of different receivers that have talent, so we really got to stop the pass and that’s one thing we’ve been struggling with in the past few games,” Woullard said of a pass defense that has allowed 268.5 yards per game in the air this year.
Bizarrely, neither team in the Red’s first two contests has committed a turnover. Woullard said the Cornell defense hopes to get in the takeaway column to get off the field and give the offense short-field opportunities.
“One of our goals [is] two-plus turnovers,” he said. “We try to do that every week but we’re really emphasizing it this week because we as a defense need to set up our offense.”
On the flipside, the offense will look to continue its mistake-free play after turnovers plagued the team in its first two games last year.
“If you had told me that we wouldn’t give it away and we’d be 0-2 I wouldn’t believe you,” Archer said. “So we’ve got to keep that up.”
Cornell and Sacred Heart kick off at 1:30 p.m. Saturday at Schoellkopf Field.