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Cornell Foe Has Similar Woes
Bucknell also struggling to turn things around
After it dropped its first two games, coach Kent Austin said his Cornell football team needs to look in a mirror before it worries about what it sees on the opposing sidelines.
But on Saturday, that metaphoric reflection and view of the other team will look very similar.
Cornell hits the road for a nationally televised game against Bucknell, another winless team under a first-year coach revamping a program. And the similarities don’t stop there.
Both teams have struggled to establish a sound running game, both are losing the turnover battle, both have struggled to score points. And both teams start multiple freshmen – including their quarterbacks, a rare distinction.
At the same time Jeff Mathews ascended through the ranks at Cornell (0-2), Brandon Wesley was doing the same at Bucknell (0-3). Coach Joe Susan said it all started with Wesley’s work with the team over the summer, and he was the team’s second quarterback by the end of preseason.
“What he did is that by being so athletic, he opened our minds to rotating him” with junior Burke Batten, Susan said.
That quickly turned to full-time status, and Wesley has been named the Patriot League Rookie of the Week after his two starts for a team transitioning out of former coach Tim Landis’ option offense to Susan’s more pro-style offense.
That transition has proven to be hardest on the offensive line.
“In the spring, we really had to work on lightening up their stances,” Susan said. “In the double-slot option, they were almost in defensive stances. There wasn’t much pure protection blocking.”
Wesley’s mobility behind a work-in-progress line certainly has come in handy.
“He made a living on the run in high school,” Susan said. “But as he matures, once he feels he’s flushed, right now what he does is run. With time, he’ll learn to continue to look down the field and find an open receiver.”
Similar to the way Yale approached Mathews last week, Cornell figures to test the freshman quarterback with pressure.
“He’s a freshman, so he can make mistakes,” Cornell defensive tackle Jack Campbell said. “But he shows a lot of potential to be a good quarterback. We’re going to try to get to him a lot this week.”
Austin pointed out that the Bison are by no means a one-man show, and the Big Red has shown an inability to stop up-the-gut running with any consistency.
“They can still run (with) power and play action off of power and those types of things,” Austin said. “Again, we’ve got our work cut out for us to stop the run. And they have also have some pretty quick receivers that have some play-making ability that we can’t allow to get loose out in space.”
As for Mathews, the reviews after his first collegiate start were mostly positive. The only blemish was the lack of execution on a handful of deep balls.
That shines the spotlight back on a running game that mustered just 22 yards on 22 carries a week ago.
Injuries haven’t helped. The offensive line took a hit when right guard Matt Green and left tackle Drew McGowan both left with injuries last week. Austin said their ability to play this week was “not looking good.” That leaves two more freshmen as possible replacements – Josh Grider and Tucker Maggio-Hucek.
What was supposed to be a three-pronged attack out of the backfield has been whittled down to one. Grant Gellatly suffered a broken foot in the season opener and is done for the year. Then senior Marcus Hendren was knocked out of last week’s game against Yale with a concussion. He’s out for at least another week.
That leaves junior transfer Nick Booker-Tandy, who has been fighting off a sprained foot.
“We’ve got to be able to run the football and take some pressure off of Jeff (Mathews),” Austin said. “And then we’ve got to scheme some things up … to get some long handoffs and some other things to have a high efficiency and completion rate on certain downs and distances.”
While the Bison defense has a 4-3 formation similar to what Cornell opposed last week, Booker-Tandy said there are plenty of differences.
“They play the run a lot. They’re not as big and physical as Yale, from what I’ve seen so far,” he said. “They blitz a lot. They basically bet on their secondary and the quarterback not being able to figure out where the holes are in the secondary when they blitz.”
By Brandon Thomas, The Ithaca Journal