When the Red took the field last Saturday at Bucknell it was a team clearly in need of a win after starting off its season 0-2. Cornell (1-2, 0-1 Ivy) has now taken the heavy burden of a 10-game losing streak off its shoulders, but the real test in the team’s attempt to climb to the top of the Ivy League will take place tomorrow when the Red travels to Cambridge, Mass., to take on rival Harvard (2-1, 0-1).
In what should be the first of many matchups with the Crimson, Austin expects that his young team will have the opportunity to learn from such an experienced group.
“It’s a great challenge for us,” he said. “They’ve got a really good football team, they’re big, they’re athletic and they play well together. … To compete against a team like this should make us better.”
After injuries to junior quarterback Adam Currie and senior running back Marcus Hendren forced younger players to step up and take on increased roles in the offense, the backups successfully played their ways into permanent starting roles. Junior running back Nick Booker-Tandy has led the team in rushing over the last two weeks, providing freshman quarterback Jeff Mathews with a reliable running game to help relieve pressure on the Red’s aerial attack.
“Our running game has been big for us this year,” Mathews said. “We’ve had some injuries … Nick has stepped up and Troy Lewis also stepped up, so that helps our offense a lot. When we’re balanced, we’re a lot better offense.”
Austin also praised Booker-Tandy’s ability to lead the run game, but added that he needs to limit the back’s reps to make sure he doesn’t become overexposed.
“Nick’s a guy that cares a lot about being good,” he said. “He’s not an every-down back. We know that, so we try to use him a little bit differently and get him a little bit more in space to take some of the pounding off of him in the interior run game.”
The other noticeable difference in Cornell’s victory over Bucknell last week — when compared to its two previous losses to begin the season — was the improvement made by the team’s run defense. After allowing Wagner and Yale to combine for over 500 yards of running offense in its first two games of the year, the Red managed to hold Bucknell to 105 yards on the ground last week, culminating in a 21-12 win over the Bison.
“We really needed that first win. … We’re still working through some little kinks and we’re getting better,” said freshman safety Brian Gee. “There’s a lot we can improve still, and we’re getting better each week and that’s our goal. As long as we do that, we’re going to be a tough defense to get by.”
One of the highlights of last week’s victory was a 65-yard kickoff return to open the game by sophomore wide receiver Luke Tasker, who bounced back after losing a crucial fumble in the Red’s territory during its Homecoming loss to Yale. Austin decided to stay with his young returner despite the difficulty Tasker had the week prior; however, it seems as though the coach’s patience paid off in the end.
“[Tasker] is what you want in a player as a coach; he’s committed, he’s got a great work ethic, he’s got a great attitude. Every player makes mistakes. We’re certainly not going to shy away from giving Luke opportunities to take advantage … of his ability,” Austin said.
The Crimson hosts the Red after earning its second win of the season with a 35-10 victory over Lafayette; however, both teams are winless in league play. Harvard’s lone Ivy League game ended in a 29-14 loss at Brown in the second week of the season. Senior quarterback Andrew Hatch had only thrown the ball 48 times through his team’s first two games before sitting out of last week’s bout. The Harvard running game has been doing most of the heavy lifting early on, led by the three-headed attack of senior Gio Gordon and sophomores Rick Zajeski and Treavor Scales. The group accounted for over 250 yards on the ground in the Crimson’s blowout win over Lafayette, and figures to be a significant challenge for the Cornell run defense.
“We can’t let teams just grind the ball on us … grind up clock and keep our offense off the field,” Austin said. “It puts more pressure on the offense to score quickly, and with your players especially [on the offensive line] and a young quarterback we don’t want to be put in a situation where we have to score quickly.”
The Red will have to score often to keep up with a powerful Harvard offense, but as Austin explained the sense of urgency will ultimately depend on how things go on the defensive side of the ball.