Editor's Note: This is a series that will be running in the lead-off to the start of the Ivy League football season. Members of the WHRB staff are writing up previews of each team, looking at the positives and negatives for all of the teams, and giving an overall impression if where the team was picked in the Ivy League football media day was correct. Our series starts today with the team picked to finish last in the Ivy League at football media day, Cornell.
Cornell Football Preview:
by Brendan Roche
The Cornell Big Red had their worst season since 2003, going 2-8 overall, and 1-6 in the Ivy League, and is everyone’s favorite to bring up the rear of the Ancient Eight once again. Below the jump, I take a look at their new coach, their offense and defense, and whether or not the media was right to pick them for last.
Welcome to the League: Cornell is one of two Ivy League teams featuring a new head ball coach this season, as Kent Austin makes his collegiate head coaching debut, after Jim Knowles left to become the defensive coordinator at Duke. Austin has an unusual but proven pedigree as a winner, claiming two Grey Cup championships north of the border in the CFL (1989, 1994) as a quarterback, and earning two more Grey Cups, one as an offensive coordinator of the Toronto Argonauts (2004), and one as the head coach of the Saskatchewan Roughriders (2007). After winning the 2007 CFL Coach of the Year Award, Austin returned to his alma mater, serving as the offensive coordinator for Mississippi for two years, until he was hired by Cornell. In 2008, Ole Miss averaged 407.4 yards per game, 29th in the FBS, and 32.1 points per game, 28th in the FBS. The following year, Ole Miss averaged 403.5 yards per game, 41st in the FBS, 29.5 points per game, 39th in the FBS. Ole Miss finished 2008 ranked 14th in the country after winning the Cotton Bowl, and were ranked as high as 4th in the polls before finishing 19th after another Cotton Bowl win, the first back to back January bowl wins for the program since 1960-61.
Green Under Center: The Big Red are actively looking for a new QB with the graduations of Ben Ganter and Stephen Liuzza, and Coach Austin has made it an open competition for the position. Cornell’s returning players at the position, junior Adam Currie and sophomore Chris Amrhein, are a combined 16 for 32, with 1 TD and 5 Interceptions between them, all coming in last year’s game versus Fordham. Currie saw the majority of the snaps as the starter of that game, and his Cornell roster bio states “A candidate to earn the starting quarterback position, Currie has all the attributes you’d look for in running the Big Red passing game,” while Amrhein was listed as the backup QB on the Cornell two-deep for all of last season. Amrhein, along with junior transfer Josh Vick, are both expected to miss the season however, according to the university’s web site. Another name in the mix, according to The Sports Network’s preview, is freshman Jeff Mathews, a Californian measuring an impressive 6’4” 216 lbs. Michael DiChiara and Houston Hawley, members of last year’s junior varsity squad, round out Cornell’s QB depth.
Offense- Holes to Fill: The good news for the Big Red is that they will return five starters on their offense, but the bad news is that four of the starters come on the offensive line. Cornell will be looking to fill in players at most of the major skill positions, and nowhere is this loss more keenly felt than at wide out, where star WR and return man Bryan Walters will need to be replaced. Junior Shane Savage projects to be the biggest threat for Cornell at that position, with 371 career yards and 2 TDs in 42 receptions. The Big Red will also be learning a new offensive system. Gone will be last year’s spread/Wildcat offense in favor of a pro style offense. Savage told the Ithaca Journal it will be a more complex offense, "Last year we were kind of basic, so we were easy to read. This year we'll be able to play with it a little bit, and we're smart guys. We can get on the same page with the quarterbacks. We're working on that now. Once that gets clicking, we're going to be good." Coach Austin told the media that his offense will be a blend of Ole Miss’ and his CFL offense, using a mix of the SEC power run and the flexible, pro-style passing offense he used north of the border. Whether Cornell’s inexperienced skill players are up to that challenge, however, remains to be seen.
Defense- New Look, but Will it Stop the Run?: The easiest weakness to point out for the Big Red last year was their run defense. Opponents averaged nearly 200 yards on the ground per game and scored 23 TDs against Cornell’s undersized 3-4 defense. In five of their games, they gave up over 200 rushing yards: at Colgate (344 yards), vs. Harvard (251), at Dartmouth (275), vs. Columbia (260) and at Penn (249). The first change will be in the formation, as the Big Red will switch to a 4-3 defense to commit to stopping the run. Their passing defense will also look to improve slightly with the new formation- while Cornell had some great games (holding Harvard to 9 receptions and 104 yards comes to mind) they also had some bad games defending the pass, including a 20-28 and 420 yard performance by Fordham and a 26-41 and 338 yard performance by Brown. The Big Red did nab 12 interceptions and 14 fumble recoveries, as well as 17 sacks, but they gave up 35 touchdowns on the year. Cornell’s defense might also be working on conditioning this preseason, after giving up 80 points in the 4th quarter, their worst performance out of the four quarters by a margin of thirteen points.
Overall: The Big Red is probably a safe pick for last in the Ivy League. While Kent Austin has a nice pedigree, too many things need to improve from last year for Cornell to challenge. They need to pick a starting QB out of relatively inexperienced players and groom him quickly for the task, need to learn a new and more complex pro-style offense after playing the spread, and need to learn a new defensive formation while improving the passing defense slightly and the rushing defense a great deal. Cornell will certainly be a force once all of those things occur- but it doesn’t seem like a safe bet to say that they will all occur this season.