An Ivy League title is out of the picture and a winning record would be an uphill battle, but don’t tell Cornell football there’s nothing left to play for in the 2018 season.
After a disappointing 20-7 loss to Penn, the Red welcomes Dartmouth to Schoellkopf this Saturday for senior day and hopes to send off its senior class with a much-needed win. The current seniors have never beaten Dartmouth and are the last class that endured the infamous back-to-back 1-9 seasons from 2014-15.
“A lot of people know there are a lot of things to still play for,” said junior running back Harold Coles. “Whether it’s a winning record in the Ivy League or for our seniors the last time they can play. I think everybody is trying to at least prove something to ourselves and everyone else in the league.”
Cornell certainly has its work cut out for it against the nationally-ranked Green.
“It would be huge. Huge,” head coach David Archer ’05 said of notching a senior day win. “Especially beating a team that’s ranked in the top 25. I know we have gotten better, and I know these seniors have helped make us better. Beating a team like Dartmouth Saturday would be validation of it in the win column.”
A win, however, will have to come against a Dartmouth team that touts just one loss and one of the best defenses in the FCS. The Green entered week seven along with Princeton as the two remaining undefeated teams in the Ivy League teams. But the Tigers came out victorious in the highly-anticipated matchup, 14-9, and the Green fell a step behind in the title chase despite holding the high-octane Princeton offense to 14 points.
For a struggling Cornell offense that has been blanked twice in its last four games and scored seven points in one of the other two, the challenge of yet another lockdown defense comes at a difficult time. In all, Dartmouth will be the seventh top-30 defense Cornell faces this season.
“It’s a great challenge and it only makes us better,” Coles said. “There’s literally nothing to lose when you go into a game like this. … I think we can prove a lot of people wrong.”
Cornell, however, will be reassured by the possible return of junior run-first quarterback Mike Catanese, who has been battling an ankle injury since the win over Harvard in week four. Both Catanese and senior quarterback Dalton Banks will be game-time decisions as Banks is nursing a sore pectoral muscle.
Catanese has been heralded by the team as a spark plug, seemingly able to change the tide of the game with both his feet or arm in desperate moments. The Cornell offense has averaged 10.25 points per game since Catanese went down and has been shut out twice.
“Looking more positive for both of them than not,” Archer said.
On defense, Cornell will be handed an overwhelmingly run-first offense in the Green. No team in the Ancient Eight attempts more rushes or fewer throws than Dartmouth.
After giving up 177 rushing yards to Penn, Archer and his coaching staff have gotten the team’s focus back on fundamentals with an old-school football game of running on the horizon.
“Last couple games I haven’t liked how we have been able to stop the run or establish our running game,” Archer said. “Our tackling was very, very poor [against Penn] on Friday.”
“We have simplified the game plan so we are lined up before they are,” said senior defensive lineman Cyrus Nolan, who had a screw put into a fractured hand Monday but plans to play against Dartmouth in a cast. “It’s less about scheme and more about the fundamentals.”
The Cornell defense will also have to survive the first half without junior safety Jelani Taylor, who will be forced to sit out the first 30 minutes after being called for targeting in the second half of the loss to Penn.
“It’s going to be hard,” Archer said of losing Taylor, who he calls the quarterback of the defense, for the first half. “Not athletically or physically. It’s going to be tough just to get lined up especially with Dartmouth’s sets.”
“Jelani is a great player and I think we have a lot of other great players, too,” rebuffed Nolan. “We’ll be fine.”
Despite the uphill battle before Cornell and a senior day win, the team hopes it can wrap up the final stretch of the season and finish above .500 in league play for the first time since 2005.
“Just being written off is a reoccurring trend that everyone is tired of,” Coles said. “If we can prove somebody wrong this would be a huge win for our program and our season, and it would be a good way to send our seniors off.”
For the seniors, no matter what happens Saturday, Archer knows that even if the results have not been showing up as much in the win column, the second class he recruited is leaving the program in a better place.
“It’s night and day from when they walked in,” Archer said. “Ross [Tucker from the ESPNU broadcast] was like, ‘It’d be fair to say you and Penn are pretty similar.’ … That’s the only line you need for the progress because no one five years ago would have said Cornell and Penn are similar. And nobody would have been disappointed after we lost to Penn because we should have beat Penn. Those lines would have never been uttered five years ago.”
Senior day kickoff is set for 1:30 p.m. on Saturday.