Monday, September 18, 2006

Columbia-Fordham 360

For every Columbia game I attend, I like to pass on the entire experience from every angle. Obviously, this 37-7 win over Fordham was a pleasure for many reasons.

Getting to the Game/Atmosphere

A family obligation stopped me from getting to Baker Field as early as I wanted to, but I did get the car parked and into the complex about 20 minutes before kickoff.
One shocker was seeing the Twin Donut, a mainstay for decades at 218th and Broadway, closed for what seems like a long time. There was a sign outside that read, "Coming soon, Twin Donut!" But that sign seems an awful like those bogus placards they put outside businesses that are kaput that say they are just closed "for inventory." Of course, my first thought was of the parking lot and whether I will be able to use it for an emergency space at future games. I did see some people parked there, but I forgot to ask them if they had to pay anyone to get those spots.

As soon as I walked into the gates on 218th and Park Terrace, I witnessed a heavily bearded, and obviously drunk, gentlemen, being escorted out of the area. I can only presume he was cooked on the free beer Columbia was giving out to all of-age fans with game tickets in the new picnic area, but it's possible he abused himself with his own stash. The picnic area itself on the field turf practice field was nice with a live band singing its hearts out, but there was no one there. I realize there may have been a few more people there a little bit earlier, but I did expect to see more stragglers.

Once entering Wien Stadium, I was disappointed by the small crowd. With the weather turning out to be just wonderful, I expected more. However, the seats on the home side filled up more as the game went along and the final announced attendance turned out to be about 4,400... weak, but not a total disaster. The trouble is, even with the big win this week I don't expect the stands to be much more crowded for the next game against Georgetown as game day coincides with Rosh Hashanah... but you never know.

The field and the stadium do not look much different from last season. There is still no midfield logo of any kind and both end zones feature a snazzy "Columbia" written on the turf. (Before last year, one end zone used to say "Columbia" and the other read "Lions"). But everything looked good with no visible effects from the heavy rains that hit the New York area on Thursday and Friday.

There were more security guards in the stands than I can ever remember, and some newly posted signs indicating the fact that the chair back seats were the "premium seating area." I didn't see anyone getting their tickets checked, but some of the guards did ask people who had their feet on the seats to remove them.

All in all, the atmosphere was about as good as you can hope to have with 4,400 people in the stands. Most of the students, wearing snazzy new t-shirts they were each given for free, looked into it and they certainly were having fun by the end of the rout.

And Now... the Game

Columbia took the field looking pretty good in their new uniforms. The team also looked fired up. But once again, they looked smaller in total size than the Fordham squad, as the Rams were able to bring the whole roster, as this was not really a "road" game for them. And pound for pound we also looked smaller than Fordham, but that was to prove to be a very deceiving thing once the game began.

Defense Picks up the Slack Early

The Lions lost the toss but got the ball first when the Rams chose to defer to the second half. In contrast to the information on the two-deep, it was Chad Musgrove and freshman Josh A. Williams back deep to return the kicks. This was to be the first of a few minor discrepancies between the two-deep and what actually occurred on the field, as it seems Coach Wilson did make some last minute changes as he had promised. Williams took the kick at his two and ran it back to the 23. QB Craig Hormann ended up running the ball for a one-yard gain when he had to run to avoid a sack on first down. On second down, Jordan Davis rushed for no gain setting up a 3rd and nine from the CU 24. Here, Columbia would make one of its few mistakes on the day as Hormann floated a pass to Adrian Demko that Demko bobbled and it ended up being intercepted by Fordham standout Earl Hudnell at the CU 45. Hormann faced heavy Fordham pressure on this first series and pretty much all afternoon. He would get better at reacting to it as the game wore on, but the fierce Ram rush did nothing to calm what seemed like opening day jitters for the Lion signal caller.

But in what would turn out to be the first key turning point in the game, the Columbia defense did not let the Rams take advantage of the Lion mistake. Fordham star James Prydatko rushed twice for a total of three yards before Ram QB Derric Daniels threw an incomplete pass that would have been short of a first down anyway. Fordham had to punt it right back to the Lions.

Columbia had to start its second series at its own seven yard line after a wonderful punt by Fordham's Ben Dato. The Lions looked a little better on this series, as they converted a first down on a 15-yard pass from Hormann to James Besselman on 3rd and six from the eleven, but the drive died after that and a good return on Jon Rocholl's 39-yard punt put Fordham in good position again at the Lion 49.

This time, the Rams were obviously determined to test Columbia against the run. It was a test Columbia failed week in and week out last season, and on this series they briefly showed some weakness. Six Fordham rushes produced 32 yards and two first downs before the Rams brief ray of sunshine suddenly turned to gloom. Adam Brekke and Drew Quinn combined on a four-yard sack on 3rd and three from the CU 17, forcing a Micah Clukey field goal attempt from 38 yards out. But Clukey's kick was resoundingly blocked by junior cornerback Eugene Edwards who came around the side and made a clean block. Columbia recovered on its 22-yard line and Head Coach Norries Wilson stormed the field to congratulate his troops in the first of his many displays of exuberance during the game.

The Lions quickly started moving the ball on this possession as Jordan Davis rushed for 15 yards on first down and Hormann hooked up with Davis for a 13-yard screen play on the next down. But the drive fizzled after that as Hormann threw an incomplete pass on 3rd and nine from the Fordham 49 and Jon Rocholl had to punt. His punt was brilliant however, and Columbia pinned the Rams at their eleven yard line.

And this is where the game would take on true definition. T.J. Jordan replaced Daniels at quarterback and after two runs for a total of four yards, the first quarter ended and the second frame began with a 3rd and 6 for Fordham at their own 15 yard line. Jordan attempted an option and was absolutely pounded by freshman defensive back Andy Shalbrack who knocked the ball, and Jordan's helmet free. Senior nose tackle Todd Abrams fell on the loose ball and Columbia was in business with a 1st down at the Ram 19. T.J. Jordan was not to return after that play.

Marching toward the south end zone, the drive had a promising beginning as Hormann completed short passes to Jamal Russell and Jordan Davis to set the Lions up with a 1st and goal at the six. Fordham's defense re-asserted itself after that, sacking Hormann on 1st down, tackling Davis for a three-yard loss on an emergency pass on 2nd down, and forcing an incomplete pass on third down to set up a 27-yard field goal which Jon Rocholl hit perfectly to give the Lions a 3-0 lead. Columbia had made Fordham pay for its turnover, not in full, but at least there was something on the scoreboard to show for it.

I did hear some grumbling in the stands over Columbia's inability to score a TD, and the play calling had some fans wondering why the Lions didn't try a slant, but it was clear CU's offense just wasn't in sync until later in the game.

(Rocholl has clearly picked up where he left off last season and he would later be awarded Ivy League Special Teams Player of the Week honors. In this game he was perfect).

On the ensuing kickoff it was Rocholl doing the kicking and not kickoff specialist Patrick Huston. Huston would get in some kicks at the end of the game, but it's not clear why Wilson made the switch. He ended up sending this kick to Fordham goal line, where Jonte Coven took it for a 25-yard return. But a Ram personal foul pushed them back to their 13 yard line to start the drive.

Columbia's defense started to turn the screws at this point. With Daniels back at QB for the Rams, they went back to the straight-ahead run. On first down, Quinn broke through the line and nailed Prydatko for a two-yard loss. The next running attempt went for no gain. And on 3rd and 12 from the eleven, the long snap back to Daniels in the shotgun formation sailed over his head just into the end zone where Todd Abrams fell on it for his second fumble recovery of the game and a Lion touchdown. Rocholl's PAT was perfect and with about 11:15 left in the first half, Columbia had a 10-0 lead.

Abrams is workhorse for Columbia and has been for four years. He moved from linebacker to nose tackle in the off season to help mold defensive coordinator Lou Ferrari's new 3-5-3 defense and also did some serious work in the weight room to change his body shape. His first collegiate touchdown is one I'm sure he'll always remember.

But on Fordham's next possession, the Rams finally showed some signs of life. Coven got a nice return to start the Fordham drive at their own 37. A pair of three-yard runs set up 3rd and four from the 43, and Daniels made the most of it by squeezing out of what looked like a sure Columbia sack for a seven-yard scramble to the 50. But that was just a hint of what was to come. Two running plays netted negative one yard and the Rams now faced a 3rd and eleven from their 49. This time, Daniels scrambled along the east sideline for a big 23-yard gain and a first down at the Columbia 28. Then on 3rd and two from the CU 20, Daniels threw his only really good pass of the day, timing his toss perfectly to wideout Tommy Martin for a touchdown in the western corner of the north end zone. Clukey's extra point was good and Columbia's lead was down to 10-7 with just under seven minutes in the half.

Musgrove got his hands on the ball for the first time in the season on the kickoff, getting a decent 23-yard return to put Columbia on its own 28. Hormann got things rolling nicely with a 14-yard toss to Demko and then Davis rushed for a respectable five yards on the next play. But the Lion drive bogged down there as Davis lost four yards on a 3rd and one play at the Fordham 47. Rocholl came on to punt and placed it nicely at the Ram 12, but Adam Brekke and Tad Crawford teamed up to force Ram returner Isiejah Allen into a seven-yard loss and Fordham had to start the drive at its own five yard line with 3:56 to go in the half. Two rushes netted no gain and on 3rd and ten the Rams got a nine-yard Daniels-to-Bo Marchand completion to the 14 and a fourth and one situation with about three minutes left. I think it's safe to say most college coaches would have punted in that situation, but Fordham coach Tom Massella elected to go for it, and that led to the second major turning point of the game. Drew Quinn ended up stuffing Prydatko for a two-yard loss and it was now Columbia's ball at the Fordham 12.

Fordham got away without having to suffer the worst for the questionable call, as their pass rush forced an intentional grounding call against Hormann on first down, and the Lions never really went anywhere after that. They ended up settling for a 37-yard field goal from Rocholl and a 13-7 lead with about 1:45 left in the half.

Fordham didn't just sit on the ball when they took over after the kickoff at their own 29, but they didn't move anywhere as they ended up moving nowhere and Daniels was sacked by, you guessed it, Drew Quinn, for a one-yard-loss on the last play of the half.

The halftime buzz in the stands was all about the hard-hitting defense. Most impressive was their play against the run, but it was also nice to see the incredible amount of movement the Lion defenders were making before each Fordham snap. This wasn't just a little stunting, but full-out sprints by the linebackers and defensive backs that seemed to be confusing the Rams.

As for fan support, the crowd seemed to have grown a bit since the start of the game. Meanwhile, the temperature was getting hotter and the sun was getting stronger as the game progressed.

Fordham got the ball first to start the second half and decided to see if their big offensive line could begin to wear down the Lions. It couldn't. Three straight handoffs to Prydatko netted just seven yards and Fordham had to punt.

Dato's punt was a thing of beauty that went about 65 yards in the air for touchback. Columbia decided to go with the run and two Jordan Davis scampers netted nine yards and gave CU a 3rd and one at their own 29. On this play, we would see the main turning point of the game. Hormann faced heavy pressure and his screen pass was intercepted by Hudnell and returned for an apparent TD. But the Ram rush turned out to be a little too fierce and Fordham ended up getting flagged for a roughing the passer penalty and six Ram points were taken off the board. Given a second chance, Hormann and the offense started to click. On 3rd and 14 from their own 40, Hormann hooked up with Demko for a 21-yard pass to the Ram 39. On the next play, Davis ran for 14 yards to the 25. The drive stopped there, but Rocholl nailed a 42-yarder to make the score 16-7. The CU field goal and the negated Ram TD amounted to a huge ten-point swing in Columbia's favor.

With about nine minutes left in the third, Columbia shocked everyone by going for an on-sides kick that Fordham just barely grabbed at its own 49. On one level I liked the aggressiveness by the Lion coaches, but I didn't think it was exactly the time go for that kind of play. Of course, the Columbia defense was to take care of business in the end. Fordham came out throwing, as Daniels hit Prydatko for a nine-yard gain. But on the next play, we would see yet another turning point. Daniels completed a pass to a wide open Sylvester Clarke in the middle of the field, only to have Columbia's 5-7 junior corner Jo Jo Smith hunt him down and strip the ball at the one stopping a sure Fordham touchdown. Smith didn't just tackle Clarke and get lucky with the fumble; he was going for the strip all the way and he got it. Tad Crawford scooped it up and returned it to the CU 15.

Now with the ball deep in its own end, Columbia's offense was able to do what it hadn't been able to do all game, even when it got the ball deep in Fordham's end. A Davis run for five yards, a Hormann scramble for 13, a six-yard toss to Nick DeGasperis, and another five-yarder from Davis gave CU a first down at its own 44. Hormann was sacked for a six-yard loss on the next play, but on 2nd and 16, he threw his best pass of the day. Timing his throw along the west sideline perfectly, he got the Fordham defender to go for the ball and miss. The pigskin ended up in the hands of a suddenly wide-open freshman receiver Austin Knowlin who sped down the sidelines and into the south end zone for a 62-yard touchdown and a 23-7 Columbia lead. The strip at the Columbia one and the ensuing Columbia touchdown accounted for another huge 14-point swing and it was now a 16-point Lion lead.

Fordham still didn't want to give up on the run, but they should have. They tried Prydatko three straight times but for only eight yards, and after another good Dato punt into the end zone, the Lions started again on their own 20. On 2nd and 9 from their 21, Hormann made his biggest mistake of the game, badly underthrowing a pass that was intercepted by Michael Shackelford and returned to the Columbia 31.

But the Lions defense stayed tough, setting up the final important turning point in the game. Fordham attempted a 42-yard field goal after failing to get a first down and it was again blocked by Eugene Edwards! Columbia would not turn the ball over again, so while Fordham was eventually made to pay for each of its turnovers, the Rams could not even get one point out of either Lion turnover.

The Lions took over at their own 23 with just seconds left in the third quarter, and the chance for Columbia to record a genuine blowout was getting obvious to everyone in the stands. But the Lions were unable to get more than one first down, and they had to punt it back to the Rams with 12:00 left in the game.

The Rams just didn't want to give up on Prydatko. On third and two from the Fordham 38 he fumbled again when he was hit by freshman linebacker Mack Loughrey, Tad Crawford recovered at the 39.

The Lions then gave the ball to senior backup tailback James Cobb. Cobb was ready to make something happen as he carried the ball for two yards on his first carry, but then broke off a nice 15-yard scamper for a first down at the Ram 22. After a failed trick running play to Knowlin, the Lions went back to Cobb, who made a nice change-of-direction run for a 22-yard TD and the first rushing score of the season for Columbia, (they only had one rushing touchdown all season last year). That made the score 30-7 and the game was essentially over.

But Drew Quinn and the Lion defense weren't done yet. Fordham started its next possession on its own 24 and Massella put in freshman QB John Skelton. Skelton looked pretty good at first, zipping two nice passes in a row for a total of 48 yards. But his next pass was incomplete and on 2nd and ten, he was flushed out of the pocket and threw an ill-advised pass that Drew Quinn picked off at the 41 and returned for a 41-yard touchdown and the final score of the day. While Skelton threw a bad pass, Quinn had to make an athletic move to grab the ball as he was coming off a block.

Something comically funny took place after that TD as the Fordham squad lined up on the wrong side of the field to receive the kickoff! In 30 years of watching football I have never seen anything like that.

Patrick Huston got into the game at this point and he kicked it to the Fordham eight before Coven ran it back to the 29. The Lion defensive starters were pretty much out of the game by now, but the rest of the squad didn't want to let up. Skelton stayed in the game for Fordham and he got the Rams one first down. But he was later sacked by Darren Schmidt and threw a pass one play later that freshman Justin Masorti should have grabbed, but dropped. Masorti hit the turf and did his best heart attack routine to the delight of his teammates who came over to console him.

After a Fordham punt, Columbia took over at their 27 and Wilson put in the second and third teams, led by sophomore QB Chris Allison. Allison and junior fullback Austin Stevenson made the most of "garbage time" with a number of runs that brought them all the way down to the Fordham 27. Wilson then put in freshman QB M.A. Olawale to take a knee, but he actually fumbled on the first play and thankfully recovered his own fumble. He got it right on the next play and the game was over.

Liberty Cup Stays in Manhattan!

After the game a decent amount of fans stayed to see CU Athletic Director Dr. M. Dianne Murphy hand the Liberty Cup trophy to the team's tri-captains, Usche Osadebe, Matt Barsamian and Adam Brekke. The team then started jumping up and down and chanting "CU!"

Osadebe did get into the game at the end, but it was still shocking to see a player of his stature get passed over for the start. Osadebe must be having more trouble adjusting to the offensive line after his All-Ivy junior season as a defensive lineman. I can't believe he's being benched for lack of a good attitude.

MVP of the Game: Drew Quinn

There were a lot of standout performances in this game. Tri-captain senior middle linebacker Adam Brekke did not force any fumbles or make any recoveries, but he was the defensive field general and anchored a rushing defense that gave up just 91 net yards rushing on 37 attempts for a stingy 3.5 yards a carry.

There was also Todd Abrams, making his debut at nose tackle after two seasons as a linebacker and looking like a veteran with two fumble recoveries and plenty of good work plugging up the middle.

And on special teams you had the perfect leg of Jon Rocholl and the electrifying two blocked field goal attempts by Eugene Edwards.

But Quinn, the sophomore from Maineville, Ohio, made all of his big plays at big moments in the game. He gets the nod as the Most Valuable Lion in a great Columbia win.

Special kudos go to the coaching staff, although offensive coordinator Vinny Marino will need to work hard to match the job Lou Ferrari and the defensive staff have put together so far. Norries Wilson is bringing some healthy enthusiasm to the sidelines that looked pretty sullen at times last season.

The offensive line did not win this game by any stretch of the imagination for the Lions. But they were certainly much improved over last season and the flashes of brilliance from Davis and Cobb are almost as encouraging as anything else you can take away from this game. No matter how strong the defense remains throughout the season, the Lions will have to run the ball with some efficiency to win.

In addition to Quinn, the Lion freshmen and sophomores made their presence known Saturday, and that's going to have to remain the case as Columbia is bereft of a decent number of upperclassmen. Sophomore Jordan Davis picked up 61 rushing yards in a good start towards getting the 600+ yards I think he needs this season. Frosh Austin Knowlin made the most of his first game with the big TD catch and a tough grab in traffic later in the game. Freshman Andy Shalbrack and Lou Miller made a lot of plays on defense. If this young talent can improve from here on out, this is going to be a fun few years at Baker Field.

Areas of Concern

The combination of a relentless Fordham pass rush and the excitement of a home opener seemed to make QB Craig Hormann a little jittery. A number of his throws were a little high, including one or two that the receivers went up and caught, but in so doing they lost their shot at gaining any yards after the catch. He will have to play better than he did Saturday for the Lions to compete in the Ivy League, but he showed some signs of brilliance. Any call for Allison to replace him after making a good scramble or two in garbage time is really premature. Hormann should face another strong rush from Georgetown next week as the Hoyas have recorded seven sacks in three previous games.

The offensive line did much better with its run blocking, but the pass protection was inconsistent. That's a bit of a switch from last year when the O-line did slightly better with its pass blocking.

Other than Hormann and the pass protection, I'd have to say the only negative was the crowd size. Perhaps if Columbia wins this Saturday against Georgetown, we'll have a jam-packed crowd for Homecoming against Princeton on 9/30.


At Tue Sep 19, 11:37:00 PM GMT+7, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great read - sending the cardiologist!

At Tue Sep 19, 11:44:00 PM GMT+7, Blogger Jake said...

Thanks! I wish it were Saturday already.

At Fri Sep 22, 05:53:00 AM GMT+7, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jake, I was taken back by the amount of CSC security (the first I've seen the school contract out security to a top firm). As a student who rushed to the train at shortly after noon and arriving at the complex about a minute into the game -- after having my backpack searched (with my political science books, no less), I then tried entering as I always have by flashing my student ID. As I continued walking into the stadium with my iPod turned on and headphones in, I was yelled at, stopped, and told that I could not enter at that gate as I had always done in the past. So I walked (well, ran) to the next gate, knowing I was late for the game, only to find a long line of students waiting to have their bags searched again before being allowed inside (I'm assuming as a result of the free beer which I couldn't be bothered to partake in -- unlike most students, I tend to show up for the game). It was absolutely shameful, and led to my missing the first 5 minutes of the quarter.

Students were being forced to empty bottles, fearing they may have included alcohol. I had to hide my water bottle that was still in my bag from an earlier class just to get into the stadium. This isn't Giants Stadium. I wanted to head out at the half to pick up food at the now defunct donut shop (or elsewhere, I suppose), but fearing that I would not be able to bring it into the complex (with two rounds of bag screenings), I decided against it.

Once inside, however, student movement was greatly restricted. For the first time I can remember, we weren't allowed outside of the student section, nor were we allowed on the other side of the stadium. The yellow-shirt CSC security actually formed a human chain between the tunnel and the bleachers preventing us from moving anywhere within the bucket/chairback section (which, in part, I can understand given the alumni that pay to sit there -- but when half the section, especially the upper half -- remains empty, it's absolutely outrageous to keep students out). In all, I found the stadium to be a far friendlier atmosphere last season and I'll only be returning if the team continues to win. I don't need to be treated like an infant because I'm a student attending my school's football game, especially when the school should be doing everything in it's power to make the atmosphere extremely friendly for students. Someone else noted that students were being turned away from the free food available on the practice field, but were being offered multiple rounds of beer. How about those of us that don't drink? (For that matter, my free shirt is en route to my sister back home -- she might get more use out of it than me). Amazingly, there are maybe a dozen of us students that attended these games before the school invested in a Sports Marketing department.

Why Columbia decided to contract out security, I'm not entirely sure. It might make sense if they were drawing 10,000+ fans per game, but aside from homecoming, it just won't be happening. In fact, beginning this Saturday and including the Iona game later on, I expect the numbers to fall back into the 2,000 range.

At Fri Sep 22, 08:29:00 AM GMT+7, Blogger Jake said...

Well, that story is awful. I can only hope things will get better as the season goes on... just don't take it out on the team! They need your support.


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