In the second official Empire State Bowl tomorrow at 12:30 p.m. on Schoellkopf Field, the Cornell football team (3-5, 1-4 Ivy League) will seek its second Ivy League victory of the season over winless Columbia (0-8, 0-5) in the Red’s final home game of 2011. The Lions scored 17 unanswered points in the fourth quarter of last year’s matchup in New York, N.Y. to squeak by Cornell, 20-17, leaving the Red antsy to reclaim the all-New York crown.
Cornell also has a sour taste in its mouth from last week’s road loss at Dartmouth, 33-24, in which the Red wore out down the stretch and allowed 257 yards on the ground to Green senior running back Nick Schwieger.
“For the past few games, we’ve been giving up big yardage on the ground, we’ve been giving up too many points and we’re tired of it basically,” said sophomore defensive end Tre’ Minor, who recorded nine tackles against the Green. “We’ve got to put that to a stop. It’s the Empire State Bowl, it’s the second annual one and we barely lost it last year. We’re trying to take it home this year.”
Indeed, Cornell nearly pulled off the big win over the Lions on Nov. 13, 2010, but Columbia junior quarterback Sean Brackett capped a 13-play drive — which included conversions on Third-and-10 and Fourth-and-1 — on a one-yard rushing touchdown with 37 seconds remaining to complete the comeback by the home team. Brackett finished with 151 yards on the ground, along with 204 yards and a touchdown through the air. Cornell must again contend with the reigning first-team All-Ivy quarterback tomorrow.
“[Brackett] is a really good athlete — he can run and he can pass,” said Red sophomore linebacker Brett Buehler, who also had nine tackles last week and ranks fourth on the team with 63 tackles in 2011. “We have a lot of focus on him. We’re making sure we stop the run and force him to pass, because we feel like he can gash us a little more if he pulls the ball down than if he throws it.”
Although Brackett is completing only 47.1 percent of his passes this season and averages a subpar 3.2 yards per carry, the Red acknowledges the junior’s talent and respects his performance from his first two seasons.
“Last year he got us pretty good and kept the ball moving for them on third down,” Minor said. “We’re trying to limit that a lot this year because that’s how they moved the ball against us last year. He is good — he is their everything guy. He throws well and he’s a big threat on the ground. We have to make sure he stays in the pocket and just limit that.”
“We have to make sure to bottle up [Brackett] and I know our offense will score a lot of points because they’re always capable of it any game,” Buehler added.
That’s certainly true, as the Red averages 25.4 points per contest and dropped off its season average for yardage by only 10 against Dartmouth. Quarterback Jeff Mathews threw the first three-interception game of his career last weekend, although two were off deflected passes. The sophomore was mistake-free in 2010 in his first go-around against the Lions, completing 17 of 36 passes for 197 yards.
A different young Red player, freshman wide receiver Lucas Shapiro, emerged in the offense against the Green on Saturday before suffering an injury, hauling in a career-best six passes for 69 yards and his first touchdown — on a Fourth-and-goal conversion from the two-yard line in the fourth quarter that cut the Dartmouth lead, 30-24.
“[Lucas] has played very well when we’ve needed him to. He’s a big body and he catches the ball so well. We have the three wide receivers everybody knows about, but I think we’re a lot deeper than that,” Mathews said, referring to senior Shane Savage and juniors Kurt Ondash and Luke Tasker. The trio has combined for 121 receptions, 1,894 yards and 13 touchdowns this season.
Columbia’s entire receiving corps had totaled almost 500 fewer yards, and the Lions average only 173.5 passing and 271.9 overall yards per game. Head coach Norries Wilson could potentially be squeezing the last bit of production out of his club, as a winless season wouldn’t sit well with the program, one that has endured a losing campaign ever since 2006, Wilson’s first year in charge. The Columbia Spectator has called for Wilson’s firing in each of the past two seasons.
Nonetheless, the Red knows not to overlook its distracted opponent. The Cornell seniors haven’t defeated Columbia in three tries, and the Lions have stuck around in many games in 2011, losing two contests by only three points and two by seven points.
“They have lost a lot of games just barely — like a touchdown here or a field goal there — so they’re way better than their record shows,” Buehler said.
“They have had some unlucky breaks,” Mathews echoed. “When watching film it looks like they should have won more games than they have obviously. They’re a lot better than people give them credit for. We know they’re a good opponent, and we need a win, too, so we’re not going to take them lightly.”
The Red also wants to focus on honoring its seniors, who are playing their last game under the fans in the Crescent. The class includes fifth-year senior kicker Brad Greenway (the all-time leading scorer for kickers at Cornell), tight end Ryan Houska (the first player in school history to run, pass and catch a touchdown in the same season), defensive end Zack Imhoff (the Red sack leader) and 16 other players, with five more members fifth-year eligible in 2012.
“Sending them out the right way is huge for us and that’s what we’re trying to do,” Mathews said. “Between Greenway, Houska and Imhoff and numerous guys all over the field, we have so many players that have impacted this program so positively over the last four or five years. It’s only right to send them out the right way.”
“It would be great to send them out in style — not just with this win, but also with a Penn win [on Nov. 19] to send them out .500, [and to] have a great finish to the season to start us out going forward,” Buehler said.