Thursday, November 12, 2009

Scouting Cornell

Bryan Walters is still Cornell's most dangerous weapon

Looking at Cornell this season and trying to figure out the Big Red seems easy... but it isn't.

At first glance, you see a team that has trouble running the ball and worse trouble stopping the run. That's a lethal combination at any level of football.

This is really not a surprise. I picked Cornell for last place this season months ago, and with a very young team trying to get its game legs, I don't think the Big Red have been a huge disappointment.

The high water mark was definitely the surprising two-point win over Yale at Yale Bowl in week 2. That was a surprise for a team that hadn't won a road Ivy game since 2005.

But since then, the bottom has fallen out. Cornell has lost six in a row, and none of those losses could possibly be as tough to take as last week's defeat at Dartmouth in double overtime.

What is a mystery to me is the Big Red turnover ratio. Cornell has actually forced four more turnovers than they've coughed up, a very strange stat for a 2-6 team. This is mostly due to the whopping 19 fumbles caused by the Big Red defense, 12 of which Cornell has recovered.

The other mystery is the pass protection. It's been good, very good. Cornell has allowed just 10 sacks over the first eight games for a very decent 54 yards lost. That's basically just a sack per game. And yet, Big Red QB Ben Ganter barely has a 50% completion percentage despite a short passing game that should be higher percentage with that kind of protection. Something doesn't add up, but I suspect Ganter just isn't hitting his targets with or without a heavy rush.

The much-maligned running game is anchored by veteran Randy Barbour who has struggled with a 3.3 yards per carry average and 320 total yards in eight starts this season. Of course, Cornell's best rushing weapon is QB/RB/WR Stephen Liuzza. But the senior Liuzza is only getting an average of six carries per game. That could change Saturday as this will be Liuzza's last career game at home and he may get a lot more touches. Columbia will have to be prepared for that possibility.

Another rushing wildcard is junior Marcus Hendren. Hendren is only getting about five carries per game, but he's averaging six yards a carry and has a 46-yard scamper this season.

Cornell's offensive woes remain mysterious when you consider its talented receiving corps. It's led this year by the great senior Brian Walters, who is known mostly as a kick return threat but he has 42 catches this season for 647 yards and four TD's. Horatio Blackmun is another senior receiver with great talent, but his numbers are surprisingly low; just 17 grabs for 166 yards and no TD's. Sophomore Shane Savage is picking up a lot of that slack with 36 receptions for 306 yards and two TD's. The leading tight end Ryan Houska is a bit of a factor in the passing game with 10 catches so far this year.

Of course, Cornell's greatest offensive threat remains Walters in the return game. He hasn't taken one back for a score yet this year, but the young man is due and the Lions need to be ready for his best effort in his final home game.

Now to the defense. Stopping the run has been a serious problem as the Big Red have allowed 185 rushing yards per game. Even more telling is the 44 rushing attempts opposing teams average per game against Cornell. In other words, it's been mighty inviting to just run and keep running on the Red this season. Running QB's are doing even better than tailbacks on average as well.

The pass defense is not so great either. Cornell is giving up more than 220 yards per game through the air and a hefty 6.8 yards per pass attempt, (7 YPA is considered a real gold standard for a passing offense). The good news is the completion percentage against is not so bad at 54% AND the Big Red have recorded 14 sacks and 10 INT's, not bad numbers in either category.

The leader of this team is linebacker Chris Costello, and that was as expected. He has 87 tackles including a very impressive 12 for a loss. Costello has also forced three of those 19 fumbles this season. He's a hard hitter and a great pursuer to the ball and the Lions will need to be aware of where he is at all times.

A pair of emerging stars are in the secondary. Junior safeties Anthony Ambrosi and Ben Heller are getting a lot more tackles because of the weakness up front against the run, but Ambrosi also has 7.5 tackles for a loss and three sacks. Heller has three interceptions. Another junior, cornerback Emani Fenton, has an incredible nine pass breakups this season. But at 5-9, I expect to see the Lion QB's try to test him early and often.

Other than the great return threat in Walters, the Big Red special teams are a mixed bag. The coverage teams are just about as good, (I guess facing Walters in practice every week makes you pretty good).

Kicker Brad Greenway is in a big slump after making his first five field goals, he has missed seven of his last ten FG attempts including three misses at Dartmouth last week that proved fatal in that game.

Punter Drew Alston is solid if not spectacular.

As of Thursday at noon, the forecast for the game is for showers but also a warmish 52 degrees. That sounds like the weather the Lions faced at Dartmouth three weeks ago for what it's worth.


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