'Slash' Burns Cornell Defense

Harvard sophomore Rodney Byrnes backtracked to the 11-yard line and hauled in the short kickoff before quickly taking off downfield. Darting through Cornell’s coverage, he shook off two tacklers before making his move and bursting through the hole into wide open space.

“I actually didn’t think they were going to kick it deep because they had squibbed it earlier,” Byrnes said. “So I wasn’t expecting it.”

Cornell wasn’t expecting what followed. Seeing daylight, Byrnes sprinted down the right side of the field towards the undefended goal line.

However, one Cornell cover man was gaining quickly from behind, outpacing Byrnes and seemingly about to overtake him.

Unable to make up any further ground, the defender dove, his outstretched hands just missing Byrnes and finding only the chalked grass of the Cornell 40-yard line.

“To be honest, I thought I would be caught at the end,” Byrnes said.

Byrnes dashed towards pay dirt, gently curling his way towards the middle of the end zone to put Harvard back up by 11 after a Big Red field goal had closed the difference to 14-10 only moments before.

Byrnes’ touchdown prevented Cornell from building any momentum off its field goal and represented the difference in the game entering the second half.

“Had we not had the breakdown on the kickoff,” Cornell coach Tim Pendergast said, “we would have gone in pretty even.”

In recent weeks, Byrnes has taken on an increasingly important role in the Crimson offense.

The former high school quarterback has thrown, caught, run for and returned a kickoff for a touchdown in the first four games of the season, drawing comparisons to Pittsburgh quarterback Kordell Stewart for his versatility.

Prior to this week, Byrnes had racked up 294 yards, 110 via receptions and 146 through returns.

“He has evolved into a slash player,” Harvard coach Tim Murphy said.

This Saturday’s victory marked the beginning of Murphy’s efforts to integrate Byrnes more fully into the offense. The sophomore accumulated 243 yards of total offense all by himself and scored two touchdowns.

“I said to [Byrnes], ‘you played tailback in high school, you’ve been playing receiver for a year, we feel like we need to get you the ball more than three or four times a game’,” Murphy said. “He got excited about it and he made the most of it.”

Byrnes’ other touchdown came on a seven-yard scamper up the middle at the end of the third quarter. It came less than a minute after Cornell had scored a touchdown of its own to move within eight, and once again brought the Big Red to a screeching halt—this time for good.

On this day, Byrnes did just about everything and did all of it well. As a tailback, he finished with five carries for 33 yards, his longest run a 13-yard gain on an option. He also caught six passes for 55 yards, second most on Harvard behind only senior sensation Carl Morris.

One of the few balls he couldn’t hold on to still benefitted from his touch. After bobbling a difficult pass in the end zone, his deflecting fell into the hands of Harvard senior Kyle Cremarosa for a touchdown.

Byrnes and sophomore quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick worked well together, particularly on swing passes, which accounted for half of their hook-ups. On his longest reception of the day, a 17-yarder in the fourth quarter, Byrnes pulled down Fitzpatrick’s swing pass, quickly turned his shoulders and bowled over a defender to gain the extra yardage.

However, Byrnes’ largest contribution to the Crimson’s effort was his kickoff returns. Always ensuring Harvard prime field position, he undercut any efforts by the Big Red to trap the Crimson deep within its own territory.

Apart from his 89-yard return for a touchdown, Byrnes averaged 22 yards per return. His second longest return, a 28-yarder, might also have gone for much longer had he not lost his footing after blowing by yet another Cornell defender.

“We knew that Harvard had very good football players,” Pendergast said. “Byrnes is one of them. It’s not like you can sit here and try to game plan against one player.”

Or, in Byrnes’ case, three players in one.

—Contributing writer Timothy J. McGinn can be reached at mcginn@fas.harvard.edu.