Midway through the season, Cornell football is 1-1 in the games that count and geared up for five straight weeks of Ivy League contests that will determine the conference champion.
“Every Ivy League game is a must-win” at this stage to stay in the Ivy title chase, according to head coach David Archer ’05. The first of these five straight league contests projects to be the easiest for the Red, as Cornell (2-3, 1-1 Ivy) travels to Providence to take on last-place Brown (1-4, 0-2 Ivy) this weekend.
Cornell was selected to finish seventh in the league in preseason polls, ahead of only the Bears. The Red thumped Brown, 34-7, at home last season, but has not won in Providence since 2002.
And although the matchup with lowly Brown comes after a 31-0 loss to nationally ranked Colgate and precedes a matchup with high-flying Princeton, also in the national top-20, the Red is confident that a pivotal league contest won’t be a trap game.
“There’s so much parity in the Ivy League you have to bring it every week,” said senior running back J.D. PicKell. “No game is ever a guarantee; whether it’s Brown or another team in the league you have to bring your A-game, and if you don’t you’ll be surprised and more than likely lose.”
PicKell has worked mostly in the No. 2 running back role behind junior Harold Coles. But with an undisclosed injury to junior quarterback Mike Catanese, PicKell took snaps in a wildcat quarterback formation at Colgate and has also lined up at wide receiver. Cornell expects to be without Catanese again this weekend.
Shut out in Hamilton, the running game and the rest of the Cornell offense will try to get back on track against a Brown defense that surrenders 35.6 points per game and allows 267.2 rushing yards per game — both worst in the conference — and is coming off a 48-10 loss to Princeton in which star Tiger quarterback John Lovett didn’t play.
Although Brown is at the bottom of the standings and was the league’s cellar-dweller last year, Cornell knows a victory on the road against the Bears has eluded the program in recent history.
“It’s going to be an absolute battle, there’s no question,” Archer said. “We haven’t won there since I was a sophomore in college … we need to play with a chip on our shoulder and we need to play with an edge.”
Statistically, Brown has the worst offense and defense in the Ivy League, but is third-best in passing offense and middle of the pack in pass defense — thanks to their weekly second-half deficits. Quarterback Michael McGovern has the second-most aerial yards in the conference.
After shellacking the Bears at Homecoming last year, Cornell upset Princeton on the road before losing three consecutive contests to Dartmouth, Columbia and Penn to round out the season. After taking on the Bears, Cornell faces now-league favorite Princeton on the road Oct. 27 and hosts undefeated Dartmouth Nov. 10, making a win against Brown crucial.
“We go into every game like it’s our biggest game, like the championship game and we’re going to keep that going Brown week, Princeton week, Dartmouth, whoever,” said senior linebacker Maxwell McCormick.
Analyzing his team halfway through its 2018 campaign — though only two games into the Ivy season — Archer said his team is right in the conference title chase, pointing to last year’s race that featured a possibility for a seven-way tie for first place heading into the season’s last couple weeks.
“I think we had two really hard [road] nonconference games against ranked opponents [Delaware and Colgate],” Archer said. “I think there’s a lot to take away from those even though we didn’t win … I think we were a couple plays away from beating Yale, we were a couple plays away from not beating Harvard, and it shows you that the league’s a dogfight.”
With one loss in the Ivy League already, it’s unlikely the Red can earn a conference title without beating Brown — the Ancient Eight hasn’t had a two-loss champion since 1982.
Cornell and Brown kick off at 1 p.m. Saturday in Providence.