When it comes to men’s college sports involving facemasks, the Big Red have dominated the Ivy League. Cornell has won the Ivy League men’s ice hockey title 16 times and the men’s lacrosse title 18 times. But Cornell’s football program has won only three Ivy League titles.

This year, the Cornell (1-0) football team believes it can add a fourth football title to its trophy room. That quest begins Saturday against Yale (1-0) at the Yale Bowl.

In their first game of the 2003 season Sept. 19, the Big Red squeaked past Bucknell 21-19 at Schoellkopf Field in Ithaca, N.Y. Yale defeated Towson last weekend 62-28 at the Yale Bowl.

“Our first real test will be against Yale,” outside linebacker Joel Sussman said. “They have a great offense and beat us very soundly last year. But anyone can beat anyone in the Ivy League this year.”

Yale embarrassed the Big Red 50-23 at Schoellkopf Field on Sept. 28, 2002.

Entering his third season with the Big Red, head coach Tim Pendergast cannot wait to begin the 2003 Ivy League season with what he considers a loaded roster.

“We are biting at the bit to get the season started,” Pendergast said. “The players and all of the coaching staff are really excited about what we could potentially accomplish.”

Cornell finished the 2002 season 4-6 (3-4 Ivy), placing fifth in the Ancient Eight. Cornell averaged a mere 16 points per game overall last autumn. Pendergast said the key for the Big Red’s success this season is boosting the offense.

“This year, we need to maintain the level of our defense and pick up the offense,” Pendergast said. “What we need to do above all else is to execute better and more consistently against our opponents.”

Last season, the defense was the most solid part of Cornell’s team. The Big Red relied on a deep senior contingent. Unfortunately for Pendergast, only four starters return to this year’s defensive lineup.

But against the Bucknell Bison last weekend, strong defense, especially on pass coverage, secured the home opening win. With just 31 seconds remaining in the game, Cornell’s Kyle Thomas intercepted Daris Wilson’s pass to seal the two-point victory.

Other defensive standouts included defensive lineman junior Mike McGinty, who had 10 tackles and a fumble recovery. Free safety senior Neil Morrissey also had 10 tackles and broke up a pass.

Co-captain and third-year starter at defensive tackle Kevin Rooney anchors the defensive unit, providing senior leadership for his young team.

“I just hope to make more plays and do whatever I have to do to make our defense better, which will, I believe, directly lead to more wins,” Rooney said.

Thomas, whose pick sealed the Bucknell victory, also will be a stronghold at cornerback. Thomas contributed 61 total tackles in the 2002 season and possesses noteworthy speed and aggressiveness on interception attempts.

“We are more experienced this year than we were last year,” Thomas said. “We also appear to be faster and more detail-oriented.”

The Big Red also boast a pair of junior linebackers who made names for themselves in the Ivy League last fall. Brad Kitlowski and Sussman combined for 172 tackles in 2002, earning both All-Ivy selections.

“Joel [Sussman] and Brad [Kitlowski] are both aggressive, well-schooled athletes, that make a huge difference in how our defense performs,” Pendergast said. “They are the type of players you build a defense around.”

Kitlowski, a 6-foot, 215-pound junior, has played in every game since his arrival in Ithaca. And Sussman, 6 feet 4 inches tall and 229 pounds, enters his third year as a starter.

“Joel and Brad are producers,” Pendergast said. “They make things happen, and we expect great things out of them this year.”

On the offensive side of the ball, the Big Red returns fifth-year senior quarterback co-captain Mick Razzano and top rusher junior Marcus Blanks. Two top receivers and seven linemen also return. Razzano started all 10 games in 2002 and brings experience and senior leadership to an already deep offensive lineup.

“The senior leadership this year is the best that I have seen since I have been here,” Pendergast said. “Mick [Razzano] is unquestionably a big part of that.”

Against the Bucknell Bison, Razzano accounted for all three touchdowns, connecting on 17 of 30 pass attempts, including one aerial touchdown. He also rushed for a pair of scores.

Blanks, the returning Cornell tailback, garnered All-Ivy honorable mention for his play last season, rushing for 568 yards and five touchdowns and averaging 4.4 yards per carry. Blanks accounted for 47 yards against Bucknell, second on the team. Sophomore tailback Joshua Johnston offers Cornell another ground threat — against the Bison, Johnston led the Big Red ground attack with 78 yards.

“Practices have been very intense,” Blanks said. “Both the offense and defense are looking better than they have since I have been here.”

Saturday’s game against Yale will determine if Cornell’s improvement is enough to compete for the top spot in the Ancient Eight.