This Saturday afternoon at Schoellkopf Field, the Big Red football team has a chance to go unbeaten for 2016 vs. non-conference opponents. Last time it happened? 2007. And it only would be the fifth time since the Ancient Eight went to a 10-game schedule in 1980 (1992, 1994, 1998, 2007).
The opponent? Not an easy one in Sacred Heart, a team that handed Cornell a 31-6 whipping last year in the first meeting between the two schools. The Big Red had the advantage in possession time, but the Pioneers’ big plays proved to be the difference.
Sacred Heart is 4-1 in 2016, having lost its last game to Wagner, 45-20, two weeks ago. The Pioneers have had two weeks to prepare for Cornell, as they had a bye last Saturday. Bye weeks are very important at this stage of the season because in most cases the time off helps heal the wounded.
Cornell Head Coach David Archer said, “They have a fifth-year quarterback in RJ Noel (no relation to our Athletic Director Andy), who can really throw the ball, and they have a great five-year wide receiver in Moses Webb.”
Noel, who ranks among the best offensive players in the country, has passed for 1,018 yards and eight touchdowns, and rushed for 235 markers and three scores in five games.
Webb has caught a team-high 31 passes for 351 yards and three TDs.
Improvement on both sides of the ball has certainly buoyed the Big Red’s success this fall, but the defense should be especially lauded for the most improvement. Junior safety Nick Gesualdi leads the defense with 32 tackles, three pass deflections and two interceptions. Seven different players have at least 20 tackles for the year.
At Harvard, the defense held the high-octane Crimson, averaging over 500 yards per outing, to 388 yards of total offense.
The Cornell offense is looking to get back on track, although by comparison, last Saturday’s performance was still an improvement over the past couple of years. Sophomore quarterback Dalton Banks continues to sparkle in leading the versatile offense. Banks has completed 60 percent of his passes for 1,177 yards and nine touchdowns, while scoring three TDs himself. He threw three interceptions vs. Harvard, but not all were his fault. Bobbled balls by the Cornell receivers ended up in enemy hands.
Last Saturday, senior Ben Rogers caught two scoring passes, and became the 22nd player in school history to surpass 1,000 career receiving yards.
“We need to establish the running game,” said Coach Archer. “Sacred Heart blitzes like crazy, and will send everyone at you. That’s why we need to run the ball.” Sophomore Chris Walker ranks among the Ancient Eight’s leading rushers at 77.5 yards per outing, averaging 6.3 yards per carry.
Special teams have also been a plus for the Red this season. Senior pro prospect Chris Fraser, a three-time All-Ivy first-team punter, is averaging 40.2 yards per attempt with more than half of his punts being downed inside the 20. Cornell place-kickers have put 18-of-19 kickoffs in the end zone. In all, 14-of-19 attempts have been touchbacks.
A win on Saturday would avenge a 2015 loss for the fourth time this season. It would also improve Cornell’s record to 4-1 for the first time since 1999.
After the Sacred Heart game, the Big Red journeys to Providence to take on Brown for a 12 p.m. kickoff.