The Rematch: Cornell Avoids a Winless Season But is Bad Football the New Norm?

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Updated: November 19, 2015

The Empire State Bowl dates back to 1889, with over 100 meetings between the two combatants: the Cornell Big Red and the Lions of Columbia. The last 26 meetings, prior to last Saturday, have been dead even. It’s about as close as a rivalry that exists in college football — two peer institutions from the same state, but very different regions, facing off. However, now it’s a joke, a punchline. You may even know it by a different name, as, last year, FiveThirtyEight Sports named the 2014 edition of the Empire Bowl the “worst college football game.”

Last season, the 0-8 Big Red visited the 0-8 Lions in New York City and absconded with a fittingly bizarre 30-27 win that featured muffed and blocked kicks, turnovers, blown leads, and ended on a throw away on fourth down. It was the only win Cornell put on the board that season. Columbia would finish the season without a victory and mired in a lengthy losing streak. It’s not even worth pointing out the stats to illustrate how bad they were, all you need to know is that both teams rarely played close games.

Now, the 2015 matchup, also senior day for the Big Red, features a bit of role reversal. Played in Cornell’s home stadium of Schoellkopf Field in Ithaca, Columbia has since snapped their 24-game losing streak with a dominant win over Wagner (The Wagner Seahawks started 0-9, and are 1-9 as of now), and their 18-game Ivy League losing skid over Yale. Columbia’s 2015 team is clearly more talented than last season’s edition. Maybe it’s due to the new head coach, the legendary Al Bagnoli.

Bagnoli knows how to win in the Ivy League, as he won 112 games as head coach of the Penn Quakers, before briefly retiring and coming back to coach up Columbia. There are also other marked changes in the Columbia Lions football program. An increased football budget led to not just Bagnoli’s hiring, but a new home turf, expanded coaching and recruiting efforts, along with other improvements. Clearly, Peter Pilling, the rookie athletic director of Columbia, was not happy and put in substantial changes.

For Cornell, it is more of the same. Same head coach, David Archer ‘05, the youngest in Division I when he was hired and now still the second youngest. He has only five wins to his name to go against 24 losses, winning at an abysmal 17% clip.

Schoellkopf field is a hundred years old and a nice venue for a college football game. Schoellkopf’s half crescent stands are usually highlighted by plenty of empty seats. It is one of the larger stadiums in FCS and feels cavernous. When it’s full, like for graduation, it’s an impressive sight, but it’s been awhile since it’s been filled out for a Cornell football game.

On Saturday, game day is a typical Ithaca November day, cold and cloudy, and the game is sparsely attended. Senior day ceremonies involve every senior meeting their family at midfield, surrounded by the band. It’s a reminder that even a winless team has a lot of hard work put into it. This year’s team is brought down by inconsistent quarterback play, lots of blown coverages, and a highly inefficient offense.

Then the matter of the game itself. After a Columbia punt, Cornell puts in all its seniors on offense with a direct snap to Luke Hagy. Senior running back Luke Hagy made Ivy League history by becoming the first player to amass over 2,000 rushing and 1,500 receiving yards in a career. It served as an omen, as the first quarter became the Luke Hagy show. He would touch the ball 11 times, helping guide Cornell to a 3-0 lead after a short field goal.

Soon enough, it becomes painfully clear that everyone at Schoellkopf stadium is watching two bad teams going at it. After the lone score, neither team even threatens to add to the scoreboard, and the defenses reign supreme over ineffective and impotent offenses. Right before the half, Columbia can’t convert on great field position after taking over at midfield, and ends up punting again.

The second half is filled with missed chances and more ineffective offenses. Cornell sophomore safety Sean Scullen makes the biggest play of the day so far, with an interception on third down. This takeaway leads to more of the Luke Hagy show. One of the few promising Cornell drives concludes with another Zach Mays field goal attempt, which is promptly blocked. The kicking game has been a struggle all year, and Mays is no exception. He’s only made 50% of his kicks and missed two out of nine extra points.

After further antics that include Cornell sophomore defensive back Nick Gesualdi picking off as a mishandled pass that also leads to no points and a Columbia fake punt that ends up just centimeters short of a first down, a Lions drive finally looks threatening. It starts at the Cornell four, and several gashing Cameron Molina runs later, their best offensive player on the day, Columbia is in business. It all a crescendos with a huge third and goal at the six yard line. First, a holding call wipes out an Anders Hill touchdown scramble. Now, the Lions are faced with a much trickier third and sixteen. The Columbia offense takes a horrible ten yard sack, going backwards again. The subsequent field goal attempt is comically inaccurate and short thanks to the wind. The Big Red celebrate like they won the title.

With Hagy out due to injury, Cornell’s fullback, sophomore Jack Gellatly, has some big first down runs to seal it. Then sophomore Quarterback Jake Jatis’ first down run, getting the edge and sliding down inbounds, makes it official. Cornell takes a strange formation that has not been seen this year — the victory formation — and takes a knee to close out the game.

For all the optimism that surrounded the season’s start, it’s replaced by the pragmatism of celebration in avoiding a winless season. In the preseason, the company line was how this year would be different, how the guys felt they were close to doing something special. Spring  and fall practices were going great. The guys couldn’t wait to get out there and make plays. A few close losses, blown leads, and slow starts turned into a 0-9 season.

The Big Red didn’t score after a first drive field goal, then they were given a trophy. So it all begs the question — is bad football the new norm at Cornell? Is raucous celebration after lone wins and Empire Cups the best to expect?

The postgame press conference was especially elucidating. Columbia coach Bagnoli was his usual malcontented self, and his players seemed crestfallen. Bagnoli hammered home that he tried to convey to his players how tough the game would be all week.

“We’re all very disappointed,” the Columbia head coach said. “I felt we took a step backwards after mostly taking step forwards this year.” When asked of the progress of his squad, he said “We’ve show glimpses at times of being a pretty good football team, of being a consistent football team. Today, not so much.” It’s gotten so bad that Columbia considers losing to Cornell a let down game.

Then, Coach Archer. Would he be relieved, and talk about stepping stones for bigger things? Would he be muted in his celebration?

“I’m just so happy for these seniors,” an emotional Coach Archer said “They better enjoy the hell out of it and celebrate their butts off because they earned it.” Guess not. There was no talk of bigger things, except a general desire to beat Penn the next week.

Last year it was a three point win over Columbia. This season it’s a three point win over Columbia. So, what has changed? Is their progress?

When asked of his team’s progress, Archer explained, “Last year, defensively, we had to blitz eighty-five or ninety percent of the time. This year, thanks to the hard work of these guys in the weight room, we really shifted how we call the game. We don’t have to blitz nearly as much. That’s a huge difference.” He added, “Offensively, we’ve been able to keep the [run/pass] balance what we want,” while adding that the offense has become much more sophisticated. From Archer’s comments you could be forgiven for thinking the team had won four or five more games this year.

It’s clear coach Archer wants to build something here in Ithaca, and it’s going to take time. The culture of losing has to be scrubbed away first, and Archer is preaching leadership resiliency and hard work. Archer’s kids are playing hard, and he keeps them motivated. This team never quit, even when things were going bad, which is a double edged sword — good, as it means Archer is a motivator and leader, yet bad because Cornell has to face that playing hard and being resilient got them a 40-3 shellacking at home by Harvard.

Now, it’s a matter of recruiting and developing more good, solid players. That’s the hard part. Only time will tell if Archer is up to the task. A win over Penn Saturday would be a good sign, but don’t hold your breath since good football in Ithaca might be a while off.

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