Perhaps the best way for Cornell football to snap out of its recent slump is a matchup against a foe whose style of play they not only know but also know how to beat.
On Saturday, the Red will travel to Cambridge to face Harvard, a team that Cornell has beaten two years running. Prior to that, though, the Crimson triumphed over the Red in 11 straight games.
Cornell is coming off a disappointing loss to Georgetown in front of its Homecoming crowd. While the Hoyas are much improved compared to previous seasons, the Red had a number of chances to emerge victorious — but a struggling offense proved unable to score the necessary points.
After pinning the team’s offensive struggles to growing pains and inexperience on the field post-game, head coach David Archer ’05 believes he has found the issue.
“It comes down to the fundamentals and technique we’re using,” said Archer. “We made a point of making our calls simpler, so we tried to simplify the scheme. Now it comes down to the fundamentals of our footwork, of our hand placement, for holding calls, or false starts or concentration.”
Against the Hoyas, senior quarterback Mike Catanese threw an interception in the first quarter that led to a Georgetown touchdown. That mistake came off a misinterpretation of a call.
“He thought we were running ‘croc’ on the pick, and we were running ‘gator,’” Archer said after the game on Saturday. “And that’s the difference between a slant and a fade.”
The quarterback’s status is once again uncertain for the upcoming weekend. The first-season starter, who has already suffered injuries including a concussion this season, came out of the physical game a little banged up after playing nearly every snap against the Hoyas.
Luckily for the Red, another core piece on the offense is feeling much better heading into Harvard. Senior running back Harold Coles will look to return to form this weekend. Hampered by hamstring issues, Coles only notched 65 yards on 10 carries last weekend — a far cry from his two 100-yard efforts against Marist and Yale that kicked off the 2019 season.
Last year, Coles was limited by an imposing Harvard front-seven that held him to 15 carries for 70 yards. That being said, he did rush for a crucial 34-yard score that propelled Cornell’s thrilling comeback.
“My hammy feels great, actually,” said Coles. “Physically, I feel fine [now]. But mentally, obviously, I’m not very happy with [Saturday’s] outcome. I just want to win at the end of the day, whether that’s two carries or 20 — whatever it takes.”
Coles also offered his evaluation of Harvard’s defensive unit.
“Harvard’s Harvard. They do the same thing every year. They have a very base defense — they have four down, three linebackers. They’re very solid, and they don’t change a lot of what they do because they’re pretty good at what they do,” he said.
In order to top the Crimson, Cornell will have to maintain the defensive prowess it has displayed over the past few weeks.
Senior linebacker Lance Blass offered his thoughts on the matchup.
“I mean, I’m a little biased, but I think it always comes down to just playing good physical defense,” said Blass. “Anytime you do that, you’re going to give yourself a chance to win games by keeping their score down and limiting explosive plays.”
Cornell’s defense has emerged as one of the leading units in the country, currently ranking sixth in the nation in total defense. Blass credited defensive coordinator Jared Backus’ philosophy for inspiring the high play.
“To be honest with you, the schemes and everything — they put us in position and give us a chance to win, but it just comes down to all 11 guys that we have on the field at all times that have high motors,” said Blass.
“That’s been a common theme that Coach Backus had addressed,” he continued. “It’s really an effort-based defense, is what he calls it. I think we’ve all bought into that, and I think that’s the result you’ve seen.
In 2018, the Red held Harvard quarterbacks Tom Stewart and Jake Smith to 10-of-34 passing for 134 yards, but Harvard yielded a whopping 320 yards on the ground. With the Red now boasting the tenth-best rush defense in the FCS, look for that latter number to drop.
The Crimson, however, is no defensive slouch, either. Harvard’s defense ranks sixth in the rushing department.
Another interesting battle lies in the red zone. Bolstered by a number of goal-line stands, Cornell currently possesses the best red zone defense in the FCS. Meanwhile, Harvard has been quite efficient in scoring position, ranking second in red zone scoring.
Last year’s match between the two ended with a thrilling 28-24 win in the Red’s favor. A year prior, Cornell topped the Crimson in a narrow 17-14 decision. Given how the Red’s offense and defense have been performing this year, Saturday’s game looks like it could shape up to look a lot like 2017’s contest.
The teams will face off at 1 p.m. Saturday at Harvard Stadium.