Though Cornell football lost its fourth consecutive game of the season this past weekend — falling to Harvard, 24-10 — there were several encouraging signs of a turnaround in the making, which the Red (0-4, 0-2 Ivy League) could further kickstart in a Friday-night tilt with Colgate.
Against Harvard, the Red finally won the turnover battle. After only forcing one turnover in its first three games while simultaneously coughing up the ball eight times, Cornell forced three turnovers from Harvard while not giving the ball away on offense.
“We really emphasized getting the ball back in practice,” said senior cornerback Michael Irons. “We have been working new drills, emphasizing picking up the ball when we have the opportunity. Every time we tackle, we have to punch through the ball.”
Though Irons did not force any turnovers himself, he had a big game, recording two tackles for a loss as well as a sack. Irons said he believes he has made a big step since his sophomore year, when he was also a starting cornerback.
“In sophomore year, I wasn’t confident in my ability. I didn’t like the output I had in 2019 whatsoever,” Irons said. “So over the next year and a half, I dedicated my life to football. The biggest difference is now having that confidence.”
While good practice habits catalyzed turnovers from the defense, head coach David Archer ’05 went back to the basics on the other side of the ball.
“Offensively, we really simplified the game plan against Harvard to eliminate any situation in which the giveaways were happening on missed reads,” Archer said. “We’ve got to generate more points offensively because we had a chance against a very good team on the road to win the football game.”
The offensive struggles were prevalent as the Harvard contest marked the second time in a row the Red was held to 10 points. After the first four games, Cornell ranks last among all Ivies in offensive efficiency, posting a 95.8, which is nearly 20 points below the seventh-ranked team, Columbia (115.4).
Despite the struggles, the tide may be turning in the ground game, as Cornell recorded more than 100 rushing yards for the first time all season. Even more encouraging is the fact that this performance came against a vaunted Harvard rush defense, which has only conceded 51.6 yards per game.
“We knew what [Harvard] was going to do for the most part, so we used that against them,” Brewer said. “We started the day by chipping their ends and getting it inside so we could run outside leverage a little better. Then, when we started to do that, we gashed them back up the middle.”
In its first six games, Colgate (2-4, 2-0 Patriot League) has been inconsistent. In all four of their losses, the Raiders have been outscored by more than 20 points while scoring 10 or less themselves. But because both of its wins came in Patriot League play, Colgate sits atop the conference.
But the Raiders’ most recent matchup, which came against Brown, exposed some of the team’s flaws. Like Cornell, Colgate’s offense has struggled, and this was apparent against Brown. Pitted against a Brown defense that allowed 35 points per game, the Raiders only mustered 10 points.
While Colgate’s run game has been effective in averaging over 132 yards per game, the same cannot be said for the passing attack. The Raiders have used three quarterbacks this season — senior Grant Breneman, sophomore Harry Kirk and freshman Michael Brescia — neither of whom has wowed in guiding the passing game.
All three quarterbacks have been heavily involved in the run game — Breneman is Colgate’s leading rusher with 237 net yards. But in terms of passing, the three QBs have averaged a 55 percent completion rate and have collectively thrown just three touchdowns, compared to six interceptions.
In the game against Brown, Breneman did not play, and Colgate’s offense could not get much going against a weak defense, only recording a field goal in the first three quarters. If Breneman is inactive on Friday, that would leave just Kirk and Brescia, who combined to throw for only 191 scoreless yards on 37 attempts. But the two combined for 69 yards and a touchdown on the ground, which Archer and the defense have to account for.
“We got to be ready for three different quarterbacks,” Archer said. “When you have to stop quarterback runs, you’re fitting a two-back run play out of a one-back set. You have to be creative with how you put the rest of the coverage to cover down the rest of the formation and fit the extra gap with the quarterback grades.”
Despite Cornell sitting with a 0-4 record, spirits remain high in the locker room.
“It’s just come down to little mistakes that have lost us our games,” Brewer said. “We know who we are, and we know where we came from. If anything, I’d say we’re more fired up now than we’ve ever been.”
The Red will take that energy into Friday night when it hosts Colgate. Kickoff is set for 7 p.m. at Schoellkopf Field.