Pinball fans will be in for a treat Saturday as the top two offenses in the Ivy League square off at Harvard Stadium. But the matchup between the Crimson football team and Cornell will offer more than a meaningless arcade-corner duel: it could decide who wins the Ancient Eight.
The Big Red team came closer than any other in the Ivy League to topping Harvard last year, keeping pace with the eventual league champion until the Crimson pulled away for a 41-31 win.
While Harvard was favored to win that game, then-sophomore quarterback Jeff Mathews kept Cornell in the contest with 322 passing yards and three touchdowns through the air. Mathews’ momentum only increased as the year went on, and the gunslinger threw for over 500 yards in each of the year’s final two matchups en route to an Ivy League Offensive Player of the Year nod.
Mathews, the full-time starter since his freshman year, returned this year as the odds-on favorite to win the award again and has not disappointed so far this season. Considered a legitimate NFL prospect, Mathews is currently averaging 369 yards per game through the air and has thrown seven touchdowns through three games.
“They have one of the best QB’s in the country at any level,” Harvard coach Tim Murphy said. “He’s a very special player.”
Mathews could pose a problem for a Harvard secondary that has struggled to stop the pass in two of its first three games. After allowing over 350 passing yards for the first time in almost a decade against San Diego in Week One, Brown quarterback Patrick Donnelly threw for 336 against Harvard the following week.
But the Crimson secondary will receive a long-awaited boost on Saturday with the expected return of senior cornerback Brian Owusu, who sat out the first three games of the season with an injury but was a full participant in practice this week.
“We are excited to have him in this particular game,” Murphy said. “He adds a lot to our nickel package. If we can go with a nickel package of [sophomore] Norman Hayes, [senior] D.J. Monroe, Brian Owusu, maybe [junior] Chris Splinter, plus one of the safeties, that’s a step up.”
Even if Mathews is able to continue his run of success against a healthy Harvard D, the Crimson offensive attack is highly capable of keeping up, if not outpacing, Cornell. Thus far, the offense is averaging a league-high 41.7 points per game.
On the ground, senior running back Treavor Scales has had a career year thus far, averaging 130 yards per game despite only playing in the first half last week in a 52-3 blowout of Holy Cross. In the second half of that game, freshman Paul Stanton took the baton from Scales in stride, averaging nearly 10 yards per carry and foreshadowing the threat of a two-headed attack.
“The Rajun Cajun—he’s the man,” Scales said. “He’s a heck of a presence in the film room...and he’s one of the best ball players I’ve come across. It’s like we bring a couple every year that’ll just knock your socks off as soon as they touch the field.”
As a unit, Harvard leads the Ivy League, averaging 200 yards per game on the ground.
“It’s an attack-mode offense,” Scales said. “Everytime we get out there, we look to light up the scoreboard.”
Scales and co. are hard to stop on their own, but opposing defenses also have to worry about senior quarterback Colton Chapple, who showed flaws in Week One, but has been impressive since then. Last week, Chapple earned Ivy League Offensive Player of the Week honors for the third time after throwing for 260 yards and four touchdowns before being pulled at halftime.
Chapple will try to follow that performance with one reminiscent of what he did to the Big Red last year. In what was then his best performance yet, Chapple threw for 414 yards, the second highest total in program history, and four scores the last time these two teams met, including three timely scores in a seven-minute span when the Crimson was down 24-20.