After trudging through a disappointing season, Cornell football finally notched a marquee victory last weekend.
Coming into its game against an undefeated Dartmouth team, the Red was a 30.5-point underdog and had a very slim chance of victory. But Cornell pulled off the improbable, downing the Green in Hanover, 20-17.
“Everybody was obviously happy but not really surprised because we go into every game knowing that we can win,” said senior safety and captain Jelani Taylor. “It was the first time we played a fully complete game.”
“I think [the Dartmouth game] was validation for all of the close games we’ve had that haven’t gone our way — to beat a really good team at their place,” said head coach David Archer ’05.
Now, Cornell can shift the narrative of the season as it hosts Columbia in the Empire State Bowl, looking to end the year on a winning streak in Ivy League play.
With a 2-4 record in conference play, the Red could ascend to a tie for fourth place in the conference standings with a win over the Lions.
Not only does this upcoming game boast major implications for the end-of-season rankings, it also holds special significance as Cornell’s Senior Day.
Taylor has started to reflect as he nears the end of his collegiate career.
“It’s definitely bittersweet — I’m trying to take in every moment from practice to tape,” Taylor said. “It’s kind of surreal — I don’t think it will hit me until maybe like Thursday, when it’s the last practice.”
Archer praised Taylor and senior offensive lineman George Holm III, who have led the team as captains.
“George just brings such a positive energy and enthusiasm and just a will … he’s been a great rock that way during adverse times,” Archer said. “Jelani is probably one of the best that I have been the coach of … just his football smarts, his production, his off-field accomplishments — he’s a special player.”
The Red wants to send its seniors out on the right note, especially given the outcome of last year’s game at Columbia.
In the final contest of the 2018 season, Cornell held a 21-17 lead with under a minute left in the game after then-senior quarterback Dalton Banks ’19 found the end zone on a two-yard QB sneak. But the Lions’ dynamic return man — Mike Roussos — returned the ensuing squib kick for a touchdown, which proved to be the game-winner.
Last year’s game is certainly on Holm’s mind.
“That one was tough,” Holm said. “It was definitely an emotional game and, you know, sending our seniors out on something like that is not the kind of memory you want to have parting with football. I don’t want that to be my story.”
A win on Saturday could also set the team on the right path heading into next season.
“You definitely want to leave it better than you found it, which is something that I think we’ve done,” Holm said. “We have a lot of talented guys that have improved steadily over the last couple weeks, so I think if we got out with a bang, it will be good for the Big Red in 2020.”
“It’s huge,” Archer added. “That’s the springboard for next year’s team. This game is about our seniors and finishing out the 2019 team … but to be able to have that heading into offseason feels much better than losing.”
Like Cornell, Columbia — which has the same record as Cornell at 3-6 overall and 2-4 in Ivy League play — has had its fair share of ups and downs this year. The Lions have notched two big conference victories with a blowout 44-6 win against Penn as well as a 17-10 overtime triumph over Harvard. But they have also suffered some disappointing defeats, including a 48-24 setback against Ivy bottomfeeder Brown last week.
“We have to win our one-on-one matchups because they play so much man coverage,” Archer said. “Their defense is going to be in-your-face aggressive, so we need to take that same approach offensively. Our defense — we got to continue to play out well, to snuff out the run, not let their playmakers get going.”
In Archer’s mind, the Lions’ biggest threat is Roussos, who leads the Ancient Eight in all-purpose yards with 1214.
“I think the key to the game is going to be stopping the return man [Roussos],” Archer said. “Nobody knew him last year when he scorched us for a punt return and a kick return. Well, he’s one of the best in the country, and he’s proven himself to be a special talent. Making sure we contain him is going to be huge.”
For Cornell, there are a number of motivating factors heading into this game. Whether it’s claiming victory in the Empire State Bowl, giving the seniors a proper send-off, or starting next year on the right foot, the Red can draw inspiration from many sources as it approaches its final game of the season.
Kickoff against Columbia is set for 1:30 p.m. on Saturday at Schoellkopf Field.