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.

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Cornell football lost to Penn in its final game Saturday and ended the season 1-9. John Gatta makes the case that there’s reason to be hopeful next year will be different — starting with the emergence of QB Robert Somborn.

The Big Red’s start to the 2014-2015 season put them in the unfortunate position of having no chance to capture this year’s Ivy League Championship. This was not unexpected though, as they were coming off an offseason in which they lost their best offensive player and leader (and now, Indianapolis Colts’ practice squad quarterback) Jeff Matthews.

So, how does a team go about replacing the 2013 Ivy League leader in attempts, completions, and passing yards? The simple answer is: they don’t; and realistically, a priority of the coaching staff this offseason must’ve included thorough evaluations of the Big Red’s quarterback position. Through Cornell’s first five games, the quarterbacks who played (Few, Jatis, and Gallagher) managed to complete 50.85% of passes at 5.29 yards per attempt, while throwing 6 TDs and 7 INTs. In a sport where quarterback performance is arguably the most determinant of team success, the Big Red went 0-5, scoring an unimpressive 10.6 points per game and getting outscored by an average of 20 points per game.

It was at this point halfway through the season, that Head Coach David Archer and staff made the decision to let Robert Somborn, the Texas-born sophomore, loose. Somborn had played a bit his freshman year, coming off the bench in each of Cornell’s final two games (both of which were victories). His body of work in 2013 showcased an adept ability to throw on the run and scramble if necessary – many of the Big Red’s following thought Somborn had a real shot for the starting gig this year, but an ankle injury in preseason training set him back.

Instead, Somborn was to become Cornell’s spark – the change that could give the football program some life and the possibility to snag its first victory. Somborn saw his first real action against Brown on the road on 10/25. Cornell began the game with a QB rotation (Jatis, Gallagher, Somborn), which wasn’t very effective due to turnovers and the inability to sustain drives, leaving the Big Red down 2-28 going into the 4th quarter. Then, Somborn was given the green light to finish the 4th, and, boy, did he cash in on this opportunity. He led his team 81 yards down the field on the first possession of the quarter, going 3 of 4 for 35 yards and completing his first career Cornell touchdown. Somborn would go on to complete a 51-yard TD before the game’s final whistle, leaving the Big Red with a 16-42 loss.

The next week rolled by and Princeton arrived at Schoellkopf field – to the surprise of many, Somborn didn’t get the start, but after three unsuccessful drives, he was, again, placed at the helm. Cornell was extremely competitive in this game, scoring a season high 27 points led by Somborn’s 315 yards through the air with 2 TDs and 0 INTs completing 23 of 40 pass attempts. This game defined the changing of tides for Cornell football – their 447 total yards blew away the next closest game of 273 yards, their 3rd down efficiency was nearly 14% better compared to the average of previous games (31.08% vs. 44.44%), and they made a season-high 6 red zone trips (in which previous high was 3). It appeared now that Somborn had all the tools for success, while nicely fitting into Cornell’s offensive system.

His next challenge wouldn’t be easy though, as Dartmouth, a 2014 Ivy League powerhouse, was coming into Ithaca to challenge the Big Red. There is not too much to note about this game – Luke Hagy ran for an 48-yard TD putting Cornell up 7 early, but Dartmouth wouldn’t look back scoring 42 unanswered points. Somborn wasn’t particularly effective but still managed to complete 20 of 33 passes for 182 yards and an interception while the team amassed 308 total yards against a stout and strong Dartmouth defense. Their inability to score in the red zone – 4 trips with 0 scores – was the Big Red’s undoing, but how would they bounce back against winless Columbia?

With only two games left on the season, Cornell and fans were feeling anxious about getting that first win. The Big Red were heading into NYC to face the other winless team in the Ivy League, Columbia, for the Empire State Bowl, which fivethirtyeight.com’s Harry Enten named “The Worst College Football Game In The Worst College Football Town”. Cornell went up 21-0 with 13:21 left in the second quarter – Columbia would end up scoring 4 unanswered TDs… but what happens next is more or less the reason Cornell was able to capture its first win. On the PAT that would’ve put Columbia up 28-21, Cornell special teams came up huge with a block and return for a 2 point defensive PAT leaving Cornell down 23-27 with 4:07 left in the 3rd. Luke Hagy and the Big Red quickly answered with a 63-yard rushing TD in the 4th quarter that would leave Cornell up for good, handing them their first win of the season. This contest was nothing but strange, but included a monstrous day for Luke Hagy: 19 rushes for 148 yards, 1 rec for 19 yards and 3 total TDs. This rushing attack was a major key to victory, but Somborn made the few attempts he had very valuable, completing 9 of 14 passes for 162 yards and 2 TDs (including a 70 yard TD).

November 22 marked the final game of the season, and the Big Red were headed up against the Penn Quakers in a contest that would ultimately determine the 6th & 7th place finishers in the Ivy League standings. Somborn, coming off his first collegiate victory, looked sharp in his first several possessions of the game, which included a 32-yard TD pass and 5-yard TD run. He would go on to show us his resiliency and mental toughness by completing a 51-yard TD pass to Marshall Deutz after his previous drive resulted in a red zone interception. Cornell, now up 4 points, had to make a stop, but to do that with a defense that has severely underperformed this year would be a daunting task. Penn would go on to score 20 unanswered points, putting them up 34-18 with 7:46 left to play in the game. Somborn once again showed his sharpness by making some clutch throws while taking his team 65-yards down the field for a TD and converting a necessary 2-point conversion to ensure his team was only down a score. Following a defensive stop, Cornell had to go 80 yards in 35 seconds (with 0 timeouts) and convert a 2-point conversion to force overtime; The Big Red would end up failing to score, handing them their 9th loss of the season.

Although a 1-9 record isn’t something to celebrate, there is a lot to take way from this season. The arrival of Robert Somborn has had a significant impact on Cornell football’s play this year – since he’s gotten time at the QB position, we’ve seen them sustain longer drives, turn the ball over less, pass the ball more efficiently through the air, and in turn, run the ball more effectively. Despite a defense and offensive line that had been underperforming in comparison to the first half of the season, Somborn still managed to lead his team in a positive direction. Advanced metrics have shown that some of the most important factors in offensive team success include ‘efficiency’ and ‘pass per attempt,’ and these categories are rooted in quarterback performance. Here’s a quick breakdown of team stats before and after Somborn began taking snaps:

Without Somborn With Somborn
(The numbers below detail positively trending statistics)
49% completion percentage 55% completion percentage
144 passing yards per game 234 passing yards per game
5.1 yards per attempt 7.1 yards per attempt
1.2 passing TDs per game 2.0 passing TDs per game
96.1 NCAA passing efficiency 129.3 NCAA passing efficiency
57.7 NFL passing efficiency 87.2 NFL passing efficiency
1.4 interceptions per game 0.8 interceptions per game
3.3 rushing yards per attempt 4.5 rushing yards per attempt
102.2 rushing yards per game 133.0 rushing yards per game
228 total yards per game 348 total yards per game
14.4 first downs per game 17.8 first downs per game
1.4 RZ trips per game 4.2 RZ trips per game
29.7 min of possession per game 32.0 min of possession per game
10.6 points for per game 21.2 points for per game
0 total wins 1 total win
(The numbers below detail negatively trending statistics)
2.4 times sacked per game 4.2 times sacked per game
18.4 sack yards per game 23.2 sack yards per game
30.6 points against per game 36.6 points against per game

Numbers do not lie, and Robert Somborn’s effectiveness is something Cornell football should be proud of – the way this offense has played down the stretch is reflective of what they could be heading into next year. As long as Somborn stays healthy, and gets the entire offseason to completely settle into this offense, this Cornell offense will certainly pose a much bigger threat to the Ivy League come 2015.


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Jeff Stein

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