The Cornell football team travels to Providence, R.I., to play Brown on Saturday at 12:30 p.m. for the team’s fourth road game in the first six weeks of the season. Fresh off an exciting and record-setting home victory in its final non-conference matchup of 2012, the Red (3-2, 1-1 Ivy League) looks to snap a four-game losing streak to the Bears (3-2, 0-2) and keep its Ivy League title hopes alive.
Cornell junior quarterback and offensive co-captain Jeff Mathews, who practiced on Tuesday and Wednesday, will likely make his return at Brown Stadium after missing the first game of his career with a neck injury. The Ivy single-season yardage record holder has not yet shown a concerted effort to slide when scrambling, which caught up with him two weeks ago in a loss at Harvard when he put his head down and tried to bull over a Crimson defender.
“It’s a nice lesson to learn because I have not been able to break him of that habit yet,” said third-year head coach Kent Austin. “[Aggression] is kind of in his DNA, but we’ve got to reprogram him a little bit and make sure he protects himself and stays healthy for us — he’s such a great player.”
Fortunately for the Red, senior backup quarterback Chris Amrhein stole the show in last week’s 41-38 win over Monmouth, Cornell’s first victory in 25 games under Austin when trailing after the third quarter. Amrhein threw for 523 yards — the third-highest total in Ancient Eight history — and a touchdown without a turnover, leaving the Red’s confidence unshaken should Mathews again be unable to play.
Senior wide receiver and special teams co-captain Luke Tasker did more than his part to assist Amrhein, shattering the program record and placing second all-time in the Ivies for a single game with 280 receiving yards. Brown offers both a feisty defensive line that leads the League in tackles for loss and a stingy pass defense that ranks second in interceptions, but Tasker said the Red cannot change its approach.
“It’d be wrong for us to start trying to hurry through routes,” said Tasker, who in 2012 has accumulated 348 more yards than the next highest Ivy receiver (junior teammate Grant Gellatly). “Our goal is actually to do the exact opposite — to make sure we play our game. Our guys up front are going to have to do their job and we’re going to have to do our job.”
The offense’s job as a whole is to turn its long drives into points, which the team often failed to do when Brown defeated Cornell last season in Ithaca, 35-24, the Bears’ ninth victory in the last 11 meetings in the series. The Red has also struggled to finish drives for much of 2012, though the offensive execution started to click last week against the Hawks.
“We started out strong last year [against Brown] and kind of sputtered in the second and third quarters,” said senior wide receiver Kurt Ondash. “It’s just about being consistent and executing all game — doing all of our assignments every play and avoiding those mental mistakes.”
“We did a great job on Saturday of finishing off drives,” Tasker added. “We need to do a little bit more, too, but things have started to settle down.”
An athletic Cornell offensive line was on top of its game against Monmouth to ease Amrhein’s first career start, a performance the Red must duplicate against an active Brown defensive line.
“[Brown] plays as hard or harder than anybody in the League, especially on defense,” Austin said. “They are really, really good up front. They collapse the pocket [and] they really get after you. We’re going to have to really protect the quarterback and control the line of scrimmage.”
While Brown’s defense has surrendered just seven total second-half points in its last three games, the offense has struggled since senior running back and leading rusher Spiro Theodhosi went down with an ankle injury two weeks ago in a win at Rhode Island. Brown returns home after three straight road games, the latest of which was a 19-0 defeat at up-and-coming Princeton on Saturday, the first time the Bears didn’t score in an Ivy-record 162 outings.
Solid senior quarterback Patrick Donnelly and the Brown attack, which gained only 242 yards and turned the ball over three times versus the Tigers, will try to recapture their early-season rhythm against a maturing but inconsistent Cornell defense. After two outstanding weeks, the Red earned a poor grade when put to the ultimate test against prolific offenses from Harvard and Monmouth, but the unit intends to prove it is still ahead of last year’s curve.
“The last couple weeks have been, in my opinion, a C-minus or D-plus,” said sophomore linebacker Taylor Betros, who ranks fourth on the team with 29 tackles. “We should be playing how we played against Yale and Bucknell every week. [Giving up] that many points is just not acceptable.”
Six of the Red’s top seven tacklers, including Betros, are freshmen or sophomores. The young defense has struggled to pressure opposing quarterbacks in 2012, ranking dead last in the conference with only six sacks, and at times has blown coverages in pass defense. To spark defensive intensity and prepare for Brown’s bruising offense, the Red has practiced in live speed all week.
“Brown is always really physical,” Betros said. “They’re kind of a punch-you-in-the-throat type of offense and that’s how we’re preparing this week on defense. It’s going to be a street fight — Coach has said that all week. We’re going to try to come out and be more physical than them … Most teams during the season do not go live because it’ll prevent injures, but we’re going all out this week.”
The Red will need a high-energy effort to earn a victory against a frustrated Brown team in the 60th matchup between the two schools. The Bears, who have won three Ivy titles and four runner-up finishes in head coach Phil Estes’ 15 years, sit at 0-2 in League play. A team hasn’t lost two Ivy games and won at least a share of the title since 1982, a proposition that Brown faces and one Cornell does not want to entertain.
“We know they’re going to come out fired up,” Betros said. “They’re for sure extremely disappointed after that Princeton loss, [so] they’re going to come out extremely tough. We’re just going to try to shut them down — that’s what our mentality is.”