Football prepares to take on winless Cornell on Friday Night

by Alexander Agadjanian | 11/5/15 6:01pm

Much like it did in the 2014 season, the loss to the Harvard Crimson last Friday seems to have extinguished Dartmouth’s Ivy League title aspirations. Playing on the biggest stage of the season — a nationally broadcast matchup between two undefeated squads that would leave the victor with the best shot at winning the conference — the Big Green suffered a demoralizing comeback loss after only trailing the Crimson for the final 38 seconds of the game.

While it can only hope for its rival to fall at some point this month, No. 24 Dartmouth (6-1, 3-1 Ivy) must now finish its season strongly — starting with last-place Cornell University (0-7, 0-4 Ivy) tonight at Memorial Stadium — if it wants any chance at salvaging the season’s title hopes.

“I think everyone knows we should’ve won,” standout defensive tackle A.J. Zuttah ’16 said about the game against Harvard. “Everybody is very confident in what type of team we are. I think the mindset [moving forward] is going and winning the rest of the season.”

Most teams try to focus on their own results, but the Big Green would benefit tremendously if Harvard gets upset by one of its last three remaining opponents.

“If they lose, we’ll be happy,” Zuttah added. “At the end of the day, we can’t control that. So we have to really focus on what we’re doing this week, who we’re going up against, because we’re not playing Harvard again, so it doesn’t really matter what goes on with them.”

At the same time, however, cornerback Vernon Harris ’16 acknowledges the team won’t completely turn a blind eye to the games the Crimson plays.

“I’m not going to lie, we’ll definitely take a peek at the score after games,” Harris said. “But we definitely need to focus on ourselves.”

In facing Cornell on Friday, the Big Green will attempt to put last week’s loss behind it in a game against the worst team in the Ivy League. A pitiful 0-7 record, however, fails to completely reflect the Big Red team’s course this year. Its first three games of the season, for example — while only involving one matchup against an Ivy foe — were much closer than an 0-3 mark would indicate, as the margin of defeat for Cornell was seven points or less in all three opening contests. In the first of these, the team possessed a lead at one point, and against Yale University, the Big Red squandered a 19-point advantage and trailed for the first time with just 32 seconds left.

This week, the Cornell offense will likely encounter one of its toughest challenges. Consistently an overpowering presence through seven games this season — having allowed more than 14 points once, and more than 10 points just twice — the Dartmouth defense currently ranks as the best in the country on a per-play basis, yielding just 3.81 yards on each opposing offensive play. At the forefront of their concern and preparations for tonight will be the opposing running game.

Leading the Cornell attack, senior running back Luke Hagy has been a potent force out of the backfield during his entire career, having received second-team All-Ivy honors at his position as a junior in 2014. Playing in six of Cornell’s seven games this year, Hagy has accumulated 507 yards at a clip of 5.8 per carry — ranked second in the conference among runners with at least 50 attempts — and has ran for five touchdowns, in addition to contributing 124 yards in the receiving game.

“It’s clear that their best player is at running back, he’s been a four-year starter for them,” Zuttah said about Hagy. “He gave us a little bit of trouble last year. I think he had a 50-yard touchdown, a couple big pickups. So that’s first and foremost one of the things we have to stop against Cornell.”

At quarterback, Robert Somborn has called the snaps for the Big Red this year. The junior has passed for 1,449 yards in the air at a 7.5 yard per attempt clip — which tabs him as the fourth most efficient passer among regular Ivy starters — as well as paired 10 touchdown throws with seven interceptions.

“[Their] quarterback is pretty young but he’s pretty good, he can get the ball out there,” Harris said about his team’s upcoming opponent. “I know luck hasn’t gone [Cornell’s] way, but you still have to pay attention to their team, because they definitely take a lot of chances [on offense], a lot of big shots down field.”

After averaging 38 points across its first five games of the season, the explosive Dartmouth offense has receded as of late, scoring just 13 in each of the last two weekends. Fortunately for the unit, a Friday night matchup against Cornell grants quarterback Dalyn Williams ’16 and company a chance to get back on track against a porous defense that allows the most yards on passing and rushing plays in the conference.

“They mix it up,” wide receiver Victor Williams ’16 noted about Cornell’s defense. “They’re a big zone [defense] team, but when it comes down to third downs, they play some man [defense], too. You just really have to be ready for anything, and that comes from preparation and watching film.”

But in the game against Harvard last Friday, the Big Green offense certainly did not slump. Throughout the night in Cambridge, Dalyn Williams — in receiving great offensive line protection — guided the group down the field several times and successfully connected on several deep passing plays. The trouble came, however, in capitalizing on the various opportunities it generated.

“We shot ourselves in the foot,” Victor Williams said. “We had a false start on the one-yard line, I dropped a touchdown pass, we had a fumble…those were the plays that stuck out… It’s a team effort, and nobody’s blaming anything on anybody. We just have to make sure we go out the next week with Cornell and take care of business, make those plays that we didn’t make this past week.”

On a psychological level, the offense, and team more generally, will need a short memory to move past one of the more devastating losses a team can experience.

“You have 24 hours to sort of look over film, to come to terms with it and move on, and whether it was a win or a loss, because you have a game the next week,” Williams said. “You can’t be worried about the past, so that’s the reality of the situation.”

For nearly the entire contest last week, the Dartmouth defense dominated a Harvard offense that had never faced such overwhelming adversity before. Maintaining a shutout for the first 53 minutes, the Big Green eventually conceded the deciding 14 points in two of Harvard’s final three drives.

“We wanted to go out and prove that we were the best defense in the country,” Zuttah said. “If you want to do that, you have to go up against the best team and play your best game, and prove that you’re deserving of that… I think we went out there with confidence, almost shut them out. But when it mattered, we let them score.”

Above all else, a legendary goal-line stand early in the fourth quarter highlighted the defensive performance. Inside the Dartmouth four-yard line, the Crimson could only gain three yards on seven plays — a sequence extended by a short first down and penalty — as the Big Green stuffed every opposing rush in what seemed like the defining moment of the game.

“I think it was the trust that we all have for each other,” Harris said in pointing to what keyed the effort. “Even though we knew we were back [against] the end zone, you could tell nobody had given up mentally. And every time we made a stop, you could feel the emotion rising up within ourselves and the crowd. Since I’ve been here, Harvard’s offensive line [has been] one of the most dominant in the Ivy League, so for us to make a stand on that goal line was very special.”

Moreover, Harris — who has the most tackles in the secondary and a pick to his name this season — remarked about the experience of playing in front of a Big Green crowd that rivaled that of the home side, and which fervently cheered on the team the entire night.

“I was happy to see the atmosphere in the community that came around to watch us play,” Harris said. “That’s the first time I felt like in a long time since I’ve been here that the community definitely rallied around the football team. [The game] was a little disappointing, but to be able to have that type of fan support and from the community was good.”

The Big Green will take on the Big Red this Friday at 8 p.m., and only two conference games — against Brown and Princeton Universities — remain in the team’s season.