An 0-3 start was not how Cornell football wanted to start its season.
“It’s unacceptable, it’s devastating and our performance is not where it needs to be,” said Head Coach David Archer ’05 of his team’s recent performance.
Cornell has stayed in all of its games, but has come up short in the fourth quarter three times. In its opener against VMI, the Red managed to convert just two first downs in the fourth quarter en route to a 31-21 loss. The next week at Yale, Cornell’s comeback effort fell short after the Red scored just three points through the first 57 minutes of play. Last weekend against Bucknell, the Red held the lead through three quarters, but allowed two fourth-quarter touchdowns and fell, 21-10.
Ahead of its next game at red-hot Harvard on Saturday, the team is running out of time to address its poor play and lack of execution.
To turn its season around, the team will have to address three glaring issues — its turnover problem, its inability to generate positive momentum on offense and its inconsistent quarterback play.
Cornell’s struggles in the turnover battle have been costly. Through three games, Cornell has forced just one takeaway this season and has turned the ball over eight times. The Red lost the turnover battle 4-0 last week at Bucknell.
“When you’re minus four, you’re lucky you don’t get run out of the stadium,” Archer said.
Four of Cornell’s eight turnovers have been in the red zone, denying the Red valuable opportunities to score points.
“The turnovers are deflating,” Archer said. “They’re particularly deflating when they’re in the red zone.”
Cornell’s turnover problem might be a symptom of another weakness in its game — its lack of offensive production. Because it has struggled to generate positive offensive plays and move the chains, the Red has routinely found itself in third-and-long situations that lead to riskier plays and turnovers. Six of the Red’s eight turnovers have come on third or fourth down.
“You’re highly likely to give it away if you’re tied or trailing on third down on a pass play,” Archer said. “Our execution needs to be there to help us generate positive momentum offensively [to avoid] getting on third down in a situation that’s not to our advantage.”
The turnovers have been just part of the Red’s third-down struggles. Cornell has gone 15-for-47 on third down this season. The Red’s 31.92 percent third-down conversion rate is the second worst in the Ivy League.
A large part of Cornell’s offensive woes can be attributed to its inability to get the run game going. Last week at Bucknell, the Red’s three running backs combined for just 18 yards on 17 carries. Cornell’s 183 rushing yards through three games is the lowest in the Ivy League.
“We have to look at what we are running, what we are best at running and the way we’re rotating players, are we giving them a chance to get in the rhythm to run the ball,” Archer said.
Often playing from behind, Cornell has relied heavily on its passing game. The Red has attempted 138 passes compared to 70 runs. Despite leaning on the passing game, Cornell has not been efficient. The Red’s 48.65 percent completion rate is the worst in the Ivy League.
Inconsistent quarterback play has plagued the passing game. Fifth-year Richie Kenney started the first two games before senior Ben Mays led two touchdown drives in the final minutes of the Yale game and earned the start the following week at Bucknell. In his first start, Mays went 19-for-28 for 256 yards with two interceptions.
Kenney replaced him in the fourth quarter and went 5-for-11 for 50 yards with an interception and a lost fumble. On the season, Kenney is passing at a 42.7 percent completion rate while Mays is at 61.9 percent. Archer did not say who will start at Harvard.
Harvard will be a difficult opponent for the Red. The Crimson comes into the game ranked 22nd in the FCS Coaches Poll after dominating in all three of its games. Harvard beat Georgetown, 44-9, topped Brown, 47-19, and most recently defeated a nationally ranked Holy Cross team, 38-13.
The Red’s defense will face a tough challenge against a Harvard offense that leads the Ivy League, averaging 43.8 points and 430.8 yards per game. The Crimson’s run game is especially strong and runs the ball on about 60 percent of its plays. Running backs Aaron Shampklin and Aidan Borguet have fueled a run game that averages 239 yards per game, the most in the Ivy League.
“There are a couple things you have to do against them,” Archer said. “You’ve got to contain them in a box, so you want to make sure … somebody’s setting the edge. The second thing is you have to be gap strong up front. If we set the edge and we’re gap strong up front, it’s kind of like a wall.”
On the other side of the ball, Harvard’s defensive line facing off with the Red’s offensive line will be a matchup to watch. Both units have been strengths for their respective teams this season. Cornell’s quarterbacks have been sacked just three times this season, but Harvard’s defense has sacked its opponents’ quarterback 11 times.
“These guys are fantastic,” Archer said. “The Harvard defensive line is deep and powerful and fast, and they’re really, really good.”
Harvard is well positioned to exploit Cornell’s weaknesses. While Cornell has struggled with the turnover battle, Harvard has excelled at protecting the ball and forcing takeaways. Harvard has only lost the ball twice and has forced eight turnovers.
Cornell’s run game, which has not been able to gain momentum, has a tough matchup this weekend. The Harvard defense, led by All-Ivy linebacker Jordan Hill, has held opponents to an average of only 49.7 rushing yards per game.
The offensive line is hoping it can play a role in revitalizing the run game.
“A huge thing we’re focusing on is finishing blocks,” said senior center Jack Burns. “Just block until the end of the whistle, making sure we win our one-on-one battles. I think if we do that we’ll figure the run game out.”
Coming off a tough loss to Bucknell, the team knows it has underperformed and knows what’s at stake this weekend.
“It was heartbreaking for all of us, but we’re ready to flip the page and move on,” said senior wide receiver Curtis Raymond III.
If Cornell is going to right the ship, it will have to do so with a win at Harvard this Saturday. A loss would bring the Red’s conference record to 0-2. No two-loss team has won the Ivy League Championship since 1982.
“If you ask any guys in the locker room, we certainly didn’t expect to be 0-3,” Raymond said. “We expected to be on the other side of that record.”
Cornell will try to earn its first win of the season against Harvard at 1 p.m. Saturday in Cambridge, Massachusetts.