The football team will return to Brown Stadium Saturday after a three-game stretch on the road, searching for its first Ivy League win this fall against Cornell.
The Big Red (3-2, 1-1 Ivy) is coming off a 41-38 victory over Monmouth University, whose team Cornell buried under nearly 600 yards of offense.
The Bears (3-2, 0-2), on the other hand, are dusting themselves off after their 19-0 fall to Princeton, their first scoreless game in 16 years. Injuries to running back Spiro Theodhosi '13, tailback Cody Taulbee '14 and offensive lineman Jack Templeton '13 did not help their cause.
"We're just really banged up, so that's a problem," said Head Coach Phil Estes, who added that "some key injuries to one particular group, the running backs" will be especially difficult to overcome.
Theodhosi, who led the Bears in rushing yards in each of their first three games this season, went down with a foot injury minutes into the Oct. 6 matchup against the University of Rhode Island. He is not expected to play for the remainder of the season. Taulbee picked up the slack with 44 yards and two touchdowns, only to get injured himself the following week against Princeton.
The Big Red has its share of injuries, too. Cornell's sensational All-American duo of quarterback Jeff Mathews and wide receiver Shane Savage watched the team's 41-38 triumph over Monmouth from the bench. Mathews, now a junior, was the Ivy League Offensive Player of the Year for 2011.
Even without them, the Big Red's monstrous passing offense can pile on the yardage.
"They throw the ball a lot, so the defensive backs have a great test ahead of us," said co-captain and cornerback AJ Cruz '13.
Cornell backup quarterback Chris Amrhein stepped in and threw for 523 yards and a touchdown against Monmouth. His scoring pass landed in the hands of wide receiver Luke Tasker, who had 11 catches for 280 yards. Tasker leads the Ivy League in receiving yards per game with a remarkable 152.8 - nearly twice that of Grant Gellatly, another Cornell receiver, who is second with 83.2. Amrhein and Tasker were named Ivy League co-offensive players of the week for their airborne dominance over Monmouth.
Cruz said the Big Red's emphasis on passing will give the Bears a good opportunity to force at least three turnovers, which he said is a defensive goal each week.
"I think we're definitely prepared," he said.
Cornell's offense is not as impressive on the ground. The Big Red accumulated 142 rushing yards in their September blowout against Yale, but otherwise Cornell's ball carriers have fallen well short of the 100-yard mark in each of their contests this year. At 60.8 rushing yards per game and with the least run attempts in the conference, Cornell's attack is decidedly focused on the passing game.
But the Big Red's greatest weakness may lie in its defense, which is second-worst in the league in points allowed and at the bottom for yards per game and sacks.
"(Cornell's defense) can do enough to give their offense a chance to win, because their offense can score a lot of points," Estes said.
The Big Red has put up over 40 points against two of their five opponents this season, and the Bears will have to contain their strong passing game to avoid a similar fate.
"We have to give them multiple looks. We've got to be able to keep them off-balance - show them some man, show them some zone, show them some zone and then go to man," Estes said. "Keep changing things up."
With some of the top defensive players in the conference, Bruno can keep offenses on their toes. Linebacker Stephen Zambetti '13 is first in the league in tackles, and the Bears have allowed the third fewest passing yards. Co-captain and defensive lineman Ross Walthall '13 is 5th in the country in tackles for a loss, and defensive end Michael Yules '14 is 10th, helping make Bruno the top defense in the country overall in that metric.
The Bears' offense has not matched the defensive squad's reputation, but quarterback Patrick Donnelly '13 said he and his receiving corps aim to lighten the load on their teammates on the other side of the ball.
"We've got to produce this week, or we're going to be putting our defense in some tough situations," he said.
Donnelly is third in the league in passing yards and touchdowns per game, but his offense has been having trouble putting points on the board. The Bears were shut out last week.
With Theodhosi and Taulbee out, the responsibility to ramp up those numbers may shift toward Donnelly's arm. Running back Mark Kachmer '13, Bruno's starter last season, is likely to shoulder a heavier load of the Bears' rushing game this week as well.
"We have a lot to prove as an offense (after) putting up a goose egg" against Princeton, Donnelly said.
All told, it appears the Bears' bid to beat Cornell for the fifth time in a row will be a strangely symmetrical bout - the powerful Big Red offense battling Bruno's harsh defense, and Donnelly's uncertain attack against an underwhelming Cornell resistance. The Bears' biggest challenge, Donnelly said, will be "rebounding after last week."
Estes said the team's return to Brown Stadium will also help push the Bears in the right direction.
"The biggest thing is we get to come home. We've been on the road forever," he said. "We're just anxious to be at home and get in front of a home crowd."