Football overcomes slow start to rout Cornell

by Alexander Agadjanian | 11/8/15 6:01pm

Playing in a nationally televised game for the second straight week, the football team managed to return to its winning ways a week removed from a heartbreaking loss to Harvard University. Despite committing an obscene amount of penalties for the second straight home game that contributed to a sluggish flow for most of the night, the No. 24 Big Green (7-1, 4-1 Ivy) ultimately prevailed over Cornell University (0-8, 0-5 Ivy) by a commanding score of 21-3.

“It looked like we were sleepwalking the first 30 minutes,” head coach Buddy Teevens said about his team’s performance. “I thought we corrected it in the second half, the defense played much better football, offense moved the football more consistently. Turnovers hurt us, kept points off the board. But it was a challenging week getting guys ready to play, and it was certainly reflected on the field.”

With the worst team in the Ivy League pitted against one of the best — and notably against one of the best defenses in the FCS — Friday night’s game certainly got off to a surprising start. With Cornell taking control of the first possession of the game, the visitors and heavy underdogs jumped out quickly with three first down conversions to move the ball down the field, aided by two defensive encroachments — a damaging trend that would continue for Dartmouth throughout the half. Standout senior running back Luke Hagy led the way with 34 yards on four carries, as the Big Red got as far as Dartmouth’s 19-yard line before the drive ended on a failure to convert on a fourth down.

One drive later, however, Cornell began where it left off with its offensive proficiency, starting with a Hagy catch in the flat that went for a 12-yard first down. Moreover, two more defensive encroachment penalties on the home side aided Cornell’s path, as Dartmouth’s early penalty tendencies began to evoke the school-record 17 flags during the last home game against Columbia University. After a fourth down conversion, quarterback Robert Somborn completed a 15-yard pass over the middle to the nine-yard line, after which Cornell had to settle for a 30-yard field goal that gave them the first lead of the game at 3-0.

“They moved the football productively in the first half, just [with] time of possession, snaps, but we kept them out of the end zone,” Teevens said about his defensive unit. “We have a tough-minded defense. Obviously our expectations based on performance to date is extremely high, three downs and outs are an expected norm. They made some plays. The Hagy kid, we knew he was a good football player. They protected their passer, they chucked it around a bit, but they hit a bunch of runs which we haven’t been vulnerable to [up until] this point.”

A lethargic start that entailed an off-kilter passing game defined the Big Green’s play on the other side of the ball. Following a third-down sack to conclude the first offensive drive, a personal foul on the kickoff return before the second possession pushed Dartmouth back 13 additional yards, marking the fifth penalty of the opening quarter. In the second time with the ball, quarterback Dalyn Williams ’16 still could not find his touch in passing plays downfield, overthrowing his receivers on deep throws.

By the end of the first quarter, Cornell had retained its three-point edge, meaning that for only the second time all season — and second consecutive time dating back to last week — Dartmouth trailed after the end of a quarter. Apart from the last 38 seconds of last week’s game against Harvard, the deficit also marked the first time since the first quarter of the first game against Georgetown University that the Big Green trailed all year.

But the offense did not stay off the scoreboard for long, as the running game picked up the slack in moving the football. Four different running options accounted for 59 of the 86 yards traversed on a drive that included three rushing first downs, led by Brian Grove ’16 with four carries for 35 yards on the ground. On a fourth down play from the two-yard line, Ryder Stone ’18 crossed the plane untouched at 9:55 in the second quarter to pull Dartmouth ahead with a 7-3 lead.

As the half wound down, both sides traded turnovers. After a big pass completion from Williams over the midfield found Jon Marc Carrier ’17 — the quarterback’s longest successful throw to that point — Cornell safety Nick Gesualdi popped the ball loose as the Big Red recovered. Following first downs off a pass interference and Hagy run that led Cornell into Dartmouth territory, Somborn — scrambling left and receiving a big hit upon release of the ball — lofted an ill-advised throw that Big Green safety Colin Boit ’18 snatched out of the air.

Retaking possession just over two minutes before the halftime break, Williams and company ensured one last opportunity to pad the lead wouldn’t go to waste. Though getting crunched by the opposing rush on nearly every passing play — which both resulted in a sack and a roughing the passer call — Williams rapidly moved the ball downfield with two big completions. An eight-yard throw to a wide open Ryan McManus ’15 with 19 seconds left in the half built a 14-3 advantage, and marked the first touchdown catch of the year for Williams’s favorite target.

Prior to the team’s last drive, the ground game led the way in amassing more yardage than the air attack. On the other side, a top-tier conference rusher in Hagy had already accrued over 60 yards on 14 carries. Sixteen combined penalties in the half — more than one every two minutes and 10 of which were called on Dartmouth — mired the game, however, and set the stage for not the most aesthetically pleasing night of football.

Accordingly, a holding penalty stalled Dartmouth’s first drive of the third quarter and negated a first down pass play pickup. One possession later, the Big Green topped off the scoring for the night. Predominantly skewing toward the running game, the offense followed the path paved by Kyle Bramble ’16, who had eight carries for 36 yards on the drive. Two passing first downs from Williams that followed proved instrumental as well, as Dartmouth found its way to a goal-line situation. On a second down option play, Williams completely fooled the Cornell defenders that entered the backfield — who tackled the runner without the ball — as the quarterback sped to the right and lunged into the end zone to push the lead to 21-3.

After surrendering one first down on Cornell’s first drive of the second half, the Dartmouth defense returned to its characteristic, intractable self in forcing three straight three-and-outs thereafter. An interception by defensive back Danny McManus ’17 on the visitor’s final time with ball capped a marked in-game improvement by the defense — particularly after an unseemly first two defensive stances of the game — as noted by star defensive tackle A.J. Zuttah ’16.

“For us, just giving up any yards is a failure, we want to be able to shut everybody out,” Zuttah said. “When they come out and get yards early, everybody’s panicking a little bit. But I think the coaches did a good job of getting everybody together, getting everybody to calm down a little bit, and we played like ourselves again.”

By the end of the contest, a balanced effort by the Big Green offense reigned supreme: both the ground game and air attack surpassed 200 yards on the night, with three different runners netting at least 50 yards.

The defensive unit held its opponent to just 194 yards, and a 9-25 passing output from Somborn that included a multitude of putrid throws made the defensive job a bit easier for the home side.

Yet amid the bounceback victory — that even then did not showcase the team’s best capability — a worrisome habit persisted. Out of the 26 total penalties called in the game, 15 of those flags penalized Dartmouth, which went for 118 yards. The calls impaired the team’s progress on both sides of the ball on Friday, and prevented what should have been a larger blowout win.

Moreover, the excess of penalties hardly stands as an aberration by now: in the last three games — all of which have also marked the closest games of the season — the Big Green have committed an average of 13.67 penalties, an increase from the 8.2 during the first five games of the season.

“It’s unacceptable,” McManus said about the penalties. “As an offense, that’s what’s been hurting us this year. We’ve been shooting ourselves in the foot with penalties and not making the big plays when we need to. So we got to get back in our rhythm as we did earlier in the season, and start taking guys down the field and playing smarter.”

This Saturday, the Big Green will take on Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, at 12:30 p.m. After taking on Brown, Princeton University remains as the only opponent left in Dartmouth’s season schedule.