Cornell football limped off the field at Harvard last weekend, its Ivy League championship aspirations reduced to almost zero.
While it’s still mathematically possible for Cornell to win a conference title, its chances fell significantly with its 35-22 loss to the Crimson. No two-loss team has won the Ancient Eight since a three-way tie in 1982. At 0-2 in league play and 1-3 overall, Cornell’s focus now turns to salvaging a season that appears headed for an ugly downward spiral.
Cornell last won the league in 1990. Its most recent winning season was 2005. With games still to come against Ivy unbeatens Princeton and Dartmouth, the Red seems bound for another season in which it’s lucky Brown is there to occupy the No. 8 spot in the league.
Two teams desperate for a win will take the field in Ithaca this weekend as the Red hosts Colgate (0-7, 0-2 Patriot) in the first of three straight home games. Cornell knows an Ivy title is unlikely — “it’s really hard to win the Ivy League with two losses,” head coach David Archer ’05 said — now, it’s about building confidence and trying to pick up wins.
“In the back of the head you kind of know that what the team goal was [is] most likely diminished, but as a defensive unit and as a position group we’re just trying to be the best we can every week,” said senior cornerback David Jones.
The already almost impossible task of salvaging the 2019 season is made tougher still by a number of injury concerns. Senior quarterback Mike Catanese is done for the year. Sophomore running back Devon Brewer and junior running back Jake Derderian are out for the season and at least a month, respectively.
“The [Harvard] loss definitely hurts especially it being a league game but you do see some pieces coming together [offensively],” said junior wide receiver Phazione McClurge, who broke out for 137 yards and a touchdown on Saturday. “We’re not worried about anything, we’re going to put it all together.”
On the other side of the ball, a defense that has been one of the Ivy League’s best — and limited opponents even while the Cornell offense has struggled to do much of anything — is hit by the injury bug. Junior linebacker Lance Blass and junior safety Logan Thut won’t play this weekend. Senior defensive linemen Jordan Landsman and William Baker have also missed time due to injury.
Cornell believes it’s time for the “next man up” cliche to go into effect — a sentiment that members of the team have echoed from the early part of the season.
“[It’s unfortunate] for somebody [to be] injured, but fortunately that creates an opportunity for somebody else,” Archer said. “You don’t know when it’s going to happen in a game; things happen so fast.”
Freshman linebacker Jake Stebbins is one example of a player who has taken advantage of increased playing time. He had seven tackles and forced a fumble at Harvard, becoming the first Cornell freshman to eclipse 20 tackles in a season since 2014.
Players like sophomore quarterbacks Dez’mond Brinson and Kyle Neputy, who entered the season with no expectation of playing, may be thrown into game action as early as Saturday. Brinson saw a few snaps on Saturday at Harvard. Archer said the No. 2 QB will be “some combination” of Brinson and Neputy.
“I think it’s a great lesson to anybody on the roster,” Archer said of his third and fourth signal-callers now preparing for game action. “Oh, I’m No. 3, I’m No. 4. In an instant, you can be the starter. … You really have to be great in your preparation and strike when opportunity comes.”
In its final non-conference game before a gauntlet of five straight Ivy contests in the season’s second half, Cornell faces 0-7 Colgate, whose putrid record doesn’t tell the whole story: The Raiders, who smacked Cornell, 31-0, in Hamilton last season and made the national quarterfinals, have faced tough opponents like Air Force — an FBS team — and top-tier FCS foes like Maine and William and Mary. Colgate is 0-2 in a tough Patriot League.
Like Cornell, Colgate enters the Route 13 Rivalry seeking a win to jump-start its season. Looking ahead, the Red hosts perennial Ivy cellar-dweller Brown in week six, so a win against Colgate could give Cornell an opportunity to build a win streak and take some momentum into four straight Ivy contests in which it’ll be the underdog.
This weekend’s game is the first of three straight home games for Cornell — after Colgate and Brown, the Red hosts Princeton Nov. 1 before facing Penn, Dartmouth and Columbia to round out the schedule.
“This is a big week for us, especially after what happened last year,” Jones said.
“Every time we play Colgate we get their best game,” McClurge said.
Kickoff is set for 1:30 p.m. Saturday at Schoellkopf Field.