Columbia-Penn: Keys to the Game
Columbia is now an 11.5 point underdog at Penn
Both the Lions and the Quakers come into this game at Franklin Field at 3-1, but much has been made of Columbia's strength of schedule, or lack thereof. But while the Lions' opponents have a combined record of 7-14, Penn's foes are a similar 7-13. The "big" difference is Penn played Atlantic 10 powerhouse Villanova and two decent Patriot League opponents in Lafayette and Bucknell while Columbia took on MAAC bottom-feeder Iona and two weak Patriot League teams in Fordham and Georgetown. On the other hand, Columbia had to face a much stronger Ivy opponent in Princeton than Penn did in its lone Ivy game against Dartmouth. In truth, the Quakers have not really played an extremely tough schedule either.
But none of this really means anything to anyone other than the folks trying to figure out point spreads. Whatever the level of competition, there are some things we know about Columbia and Penn, and some things we're still not sure about.
Key #1: Stop Sandberg
Columbia's defense has played excellent football in each of the four games leading up to this Saturday. They've been particularly strong against the run, shutting down Fordham star James Prydatko, keeping Princeton's multiple runners from blowing them away, and slamming Iona last week with negative-16 yards on the ground. It seems that Columbia does best when facing a team with one "main man" kind of runner, and while Penn does get some other guys involved in the running game, this is Joe Sandberg's show. Sandberg is better than any of the runners the Lions have faced already this year. But he can be stopped. Dartmouth shut him down two weeks ago, and while Villanova gave up a 74-yard TD run by Sandberg, they held him to 20 yards on his 14 other carries in the game. If Sandberg has the kind of big games he had against Bucknell and Lafayette, Columbia won't have much of a chance to win. If they can hold him to 60-90 yards or less, the Lions have a fighting chance.
Key #2: Pressure Irvin
Penn sophomore QB Robert Irvin has a lot of talent and is doing well considering his lack of experience. But he's had some weaker games, especially against Villanova, when he went 11-for-24 for just 84 yards and two interceptions. Columbia must pressure Irvin to see what he's made of, and the secondary must be ready to pick off as many passes as possible. If Irvin has a break-out game, then it can't be because Columbia left him alone.
Key #3: Show Up on Offense
The Lions have faced some good defenses this season, the best being the Princeton Tigers who basically shut them out in a 19-6 loss. Penn's defense is not as good as Princeton's, but it is strong. That's bad news for a Columbia team that has been struggling as mightily as a 3-1 team can. The Lions cannot expect the defense to set them up with the ball in the Penn's red zone all day, and that means Columbia must put together some big drives to win. The good news is the Quakers do seem to have some weaknesses in their secondary, and the Columbia coaches have started to use multiple-receiver packages to flood the defensive backfield. Lion QB Craig Hormann has yet to have a very sharp game, but he's been good at protecting the ball and making the big mistakes that costs the Lions games. Penn's run defense is better, but not as good as Princeton was against the rush, and that means there may be one or two opportunities for Jordan Davis to make some plays. However, it's more likely that Columbia will have to use some reverses and direct snaps to Austin Knowlin to get somewhere on the ground, and there could be a few other tricks up the coaches' sleeves here. Trickery might be the only thing that can get the Lion running game going.
Nothing will happen for Columbia's offense if the offensive line isn't able to keep the Quakers out of the backfield. The Lions' biggest offensive lineman is still a little hurt, and Penn's front seven is a bigger group than Columbia has faced all season. Converted defensive lineman Usche Osadebe got his first start on the offensive line last week, and it appears he's having a better time of it as a pass blocker, but his continuing learning process needs to speed up so he can be the force on the line the CU coaches believe he can be. Meanwhile, Columbia's multiple receivers need to get open, and more importantly, hold on to the ball. The Lions also need to cut down on penalties. While Columbia has been penalized infrequently this season, it seems like every flag has come at critical moments on offensive drives. The Lions need to be more disciplined, especially when it comes to holding penalties.
The Lions offense can be effective, especially if Hormann and the speedy frosh wide receiver Knowlin can get into a groove. But anything more than 17 points scored by the offense in this game would still be a pretty big surprise. So in short, Columbia needs to be surprising tomorrow.
Key #4: Win the Turnover Battle
Columbia has been fantastic at forcing fumbles and intercepting the ball. Penn has been surprisingly fumble-prone and Irvin will throw at least one interception just about every game. Columbia runners have been very sure-handed and Hormann has been doing a little better at avoiding the interceptions. But grabbing turnovers has become a big part of the Lions offense, and while Columbia can't count on Penn fumbles and interceptions to lead to points, it's likely the Lions won't win without a defensive touchdown or a gift-wrapped touchdown given to the offense thanks to a Penn turnover.
Key #5: Take Advantage of the Intangibles
It's Fall Break at Penn and that means Franklin Field will be pretty empty and quiet. Columbia needs to keep it that way and make the Quakers feel like the road team.
The Lions also have to try to take advantage of a Penn team that is still likely to think it's playing the same old Columbia. An early score won't be enough; the Lions have looked good in first quarters against the Quakers before. This will be about Columbia showing toughness and attitude for the entire game.
This Penn team is not the type of Penn team we've become used to seeing under Head Coach Al Bagnoli, but it's by no means a bad team. And I don't think they're going to have another 5-5 season. The Quakers may even become dominant sometime next year if Irvin matures and Sandberg improves even slightly for his last season.
For some reason, Columbia Coach Norries Wilson thinks one team will have a high-scoring game, but I can't agree. These teams are both aggressive defensively and no one should expect to see a major let down for either team. Penn and Columbia will probably get about three scores each, and the winner will be the team that gets more touchdowns than field goals. That team will be Penn.
Prediction: Penn 21 Columbia 13
Brown (+14) at Princeton
The point spread seems a little high, but Brown barely beat the Tigers last year at home, and that was when Brown was good. This year the Bears haven't been able to run the ball in any of their games except the opener against Georgetown, and that's the only game they've won this season. Princeton's stingy run defense won't break and that means erratic Brown QB Joe DiGiacomo will need to win this game on his own. He can't.
Prediction: Princeton 27 Brown 14
Lehigh (+3) at Yale
This Yale team is another strong offense with a questionable defense and the wheels are going to come off a little bit this weekend. Lehigh QB Sedale Threatt will have a big day in what should be a shootout.
Prediction: Lehigh 37 Yale 31
Lafayette (+11.5) at Harvard
Lafayette has been the unfortunate punching bag for a lot of Ivy teams this year. The three Ivies the Leopards play just happen to be the three best teams in the league. Nothing changes for Lafayette this week in the won-loss column, but I suspect the frustrated Leopards will give the Crimson a tougher fight than expected.
Prediction: Harvard 34 Lafayette 27
Holy Cross (-6) at Dartmouth
Dartmouth is still looking for its first win, but in all fairness the Big Green have endured a very tough schedule so far. The Crusaders are just playing some very good football right now and they are coming off an impressive win over Brown.
Prediction: Holy Cross 27 Dartmouth 17
Colgate (-2.5) at Cornell
Colgate is reeling a little after its overtime loss at home to Princeton. The Big Red are optimistic that QB Nate Ford has finally broken himself in as a passer after his strong game against Harvard. Expect a close game, and the Raiders will pull it out in the final minutes.
Prediction: Colgate 24 Cornell 21