Big Red getting ready for the big time. Courtesy of Cornell

Editor’s Note: This story was written by and republished with the permission of the Big Red Sports Network, which provides excellent Cornell sports coverage throughout the year for alumni, parents, students and fans everywhere.

As Cornell exited Penn’s Franklin Field last November after a thrilling 42-41 victory over the rival Quakers, an era was ending. Cornell quarterback Jeff Mathews, whose career saw him set 18 Ivy League passing records, had just played his final game, and Big Red fans were already speculating about the team’s future without the now-Indianapolis Colts practice squad QB.

However, Head Football Coach David Archer ’05 remains as enthusiastic and excited as ever about his team’s prospects this season.

In interviews, Archer often mentioned the new-look offense we’ll be seeing this season, which will be led by James Few, the Junior QB who defeated Columbia last year in place of an injured Mathews.

Few, a Florida native, looks to incorporate more zone reads into the offense, a strategy he used to keep Columbia off-guard last November. This is much different from the multiple-wide receiver sets and no-huddle offense that Cornell fans have been accustomed to over the past four seasons, as the Big Red were able to live and die by Mathews’ arm.

Big Red getting ready for the big time. Courtesy of Cornell
Big Red getting ready for the big time. Courtesy of Cornell

A ground attack

But unlike his predecessor Kent Austin, who came from the pass-happy Canadian Football League, Coach Archer is emphasizing a more balanced approach this year, looking to get more touches for Cornell’s running backs.

“We’re not going to throw it as much as we did with Jeff,” said Archer about the new scheme. “It’s a much more balanced attack, both running and throwing the ball, and the play-action game.”

This could be a challenge, however, as Cornell rushed for only about 50 yards per game on 1.9 yards per carry last year. Coach Archer explained that this was due to the presence of Mathews, saying, “It’s tough to preach having sound fundamental offensive line play when you really don’t run the ball.” However, he stressed that this was an area the team had worked diligently to improve, as too many times last season, Cornell’s running backs had very little room to run.

With this new offensive philosophy, Few — described by Archer as a “jack-of-all-trades kind of quarterback” — will be expected to guide the team after the graduation of arguably the greatest passer in Ivy League history.

However, he quickly dismissed any intentions of ‘replacing’ Mathews, saying, “I don’t think anyone can replace a guy like that and that’s not what I’m here to do.” He echoed Archer’s sentiments of focusing more on the run game, and especially getting Junior running back Luke Hagy more involved. Few also expressed confidence in being able to “run when I need to” to pick up extra yards.

Defense! Defense! Defense!

But even with the new offense, the greatly-improved defense appears to be one of the main stories coming out of camp. The unit, which gave up over 35 points per game in 2013, will be led by senior defensive co-captains Justin Harris and Rush Imhotep. Harris, a 6’6,” 272-pound defensive lineman, is already considered to be an All-Ivy candidate, and will be the leading force of the Big Red’s front seven.

The team will continue to use a multiple front 3-4 base defense that was instituted last year, meaning the defensive line must dominate the line of scrimmage in order for the defense to be effective.

Imhotep, who was poised for a big year last season until an injury caused him to miss the final eight games, will be leading the secondary from the safety position. His closing speed on receivers and ability to make tackles in the open field will be crucial in preventing opposing offenses from having sustained drives, and from breaking off big plays.

The Raiders

Even though the Colgate Raiders (0-2) have opened their season with losses to Ball State and Delaware (both schools that give athletic scholarships), Coach Archer made it clear they are still a very tough opponent, saying their record, “isn’t an indication of where they’re at.”

Under first year head coach Dan Hunt, who took over for longtime coach Dick Biddle, they have an explosive rushing attack, led by dual threat QB Jake Melville, who ran for 54 yards and a touchdown in Colgate’s 41-20 victory over the Big Red last year. Though the Big Red allowed 183 rushing yards per game in 2013, if they can contain Melville and the Raiders’ run game, it will make a statement that this is a team that can match up with anyone in the Ivy League.

Although there are still questions about the defense, and mysteries about the offensive scheme, there is a lot to like about this team.

Coach Archer is determined to make this team one of the most competitive in the Ivy League, and he believes that the systems and personnel in place give this team a chance to do just that. But on Saturday at 1:00 pm at Colgate’s Andy Kerr Stadium, the speculation and the mystery will be over: Cornell’s 127th football season will be underway.

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Jeff Stein is the founder and former editor of the Ithaca Voice.