Two Ivy League squads, one week removed from fourth-quarter comebacks, will enter the Yale Bowl on Saturday looking to start their conference seasons with a win.
For the Cornell Big Red (0–1, 0–0 Ivy), that meant watching Bucknell score nine points in the final 1:53, including seven on a Hail Mary touchdown pass thrown into double coverage. On the other side, Yale’s (1–0, 0–0) 14-point comeback over Colgate gave the Elis their ninth-straight victory in a season opener.
But come this weekend, the Bulldogs are not overlooking their foe, which went 1–6 in Ivy play a season ago and gave up 336 points in 10 games. This year’s team, though picked to finish last in the preseason poll, came 1:53 away from beating a team picked to finish second in the Patriot League.
“They’re a lot more veteran than they’ve been,” head coach Tony Reno said of the Big Red. “You can argue, when you watch that film, that Cornell should’ve won that game … To do that to a team picked to finish second in the Patriot League … It tells you how much they’ve improved.”
The Bulldogs have opened their Ivy League season with the Big Red for the past 15 years and are currently on a two-game winning streak. Last season’s matchup, a 51–13 victory for the Elis, saw Yale completely dominate both sides of the ball. Quarterback Morgan Roberts ’16 completed 86.7 percent of his passes and threw for 312 yards, while the defense held Cornell to negative yards in the first quarter and just 189 total yards.
Matching these gaudy statistics will be difficult considering that Cornell is returning nine defensive starters and a second-team All-Ivy running back in Luke Hagy. Furthermore, while Cornell played three different quarterbacks against Yale last year, they appear to have found a consistent starter in sophomore Robert Somborn.
“They’ve got some fast wideouts, some guys who can get downfield, so I think if we stay on top of them we should be okay,” defensive back Spencer Rymiszewski ’17 said. “Their quarterback was young last year, but give him another year of experience and he should be pretty tough … Hagy, the running back, is a great player too. He has the ability to make some explosive runs out of the backfield and also can catch the ball pretty well.”
Hagy was Cornell’s only player to score an offensive touchdown against the Elis last season. He ran for 105 yards against the Bison, marking his fourth-consecutive 100-yard game — a streak that is currently second-best in school history.
Additionally, the Big Red defense held Bucknell to 286 total yards despite losing the time of possession battle by 14 minutes.
Cornell’s ability to continually run the ball might concern the Bulldogs, who struggled to maintain their rhythm throughout the matchup against Colgate. The Elis initially came out strong against the Raiders, driving 71 yards to score on the opening series before stagnating in the second and third quarters. Not until halfway through the fourth quarter did the offense look as sharp as it had on its first possession.
“We had a great first series, but after that, struggled a little bit,” wide receiver Robert Clemons III ’17 said. “It had nothing to do with game plan. Maybe it was just first-game jitters.”
These jitters manifested themselves in Yale’s eight penalties, seven of which came in the first half. Half of them were false starts or illegal formations, calls that often indicate lack of discipline.
Adding that things began to gel in the fourth quarter, Clemons said last week’s game ended well only because players stepped up and showed the work they had put in during the offseason.
Reno echoed Clemons, adding that once the offense found its rhythm, it was productive.
“I said to these guys last week, you don’t know how long it takes to get into rhythm,” Reno said. “You saw us get in rhythm [against Colgate on our] opening drive, really, then get out of rhythm and finally got back in offensively. I thought the offense did a nice job once they got in rhythm.”
The offense seemed to find that rhythm last week once Roberts started spreading the ball around. Roberts connected with seven different receivers, ultimately completing 29 of 41 attempts for 293 yards. Although one receiver, transfer Bo Hines ’18, ended up leaving the game with a shoulder injury, the young corps of Yale receivers more than made up for his absence.
The corps was bolstered by the return of a pair of tight ends who both sat out games last season after sustaining high ankle sprains against Cornell. Sebastian Little ’17 and Stephen Buric ’16 combined to tally four catches for 28 yards against Colgate.
But even if the Bulldogs can move the ball effectively, they will most likely be facing an uphill battle when it comes to field position. Cornell punter Chris Fraser led the Ivy League with a 41.7-yard punt average last season and put 21 balls inside the 20-yard line. The junior is currently averaging 45.0 yards per punt. If the Yale and Cornell defenses are as stingy as they were last week, Fraser and his Yale counterpart, Bryan Holmes ’17, will end up volleying across the field.
As this is Yale’s first home game of the season, it is the homecoming game. Kickoff is at 1 p.m. at the Yale Bowl.