Tuesday, October 10, 2006

A History of Silence

Columbia's recent history against the Quakers has been embarrassing, even when compared to some of its general futility against other Ivy squads. The Lions haven't beaten Penn since a 20-19 overtime squeaker at Franklin Field in 1996. They did get their 1997, 24-7, home loss to the Quakers erased by forfeit at the end of the season when Penn star Mitch Marrow was retroactively declared ineligible... but I could never count a forfeit as a win.

Since then, there have been very few games that have even been close. The funny thing is, all the close games have been at Penn, while the Quakers have pretty much ruined every odd-number year Homecoming game since 1999. (Note the CU Athletic Department: STOP SCHEDULING PENN AS THE HOMECOMING OPPONENT!) The Homecoming losses to the Quakers since 1999 have been by an average final score of 38-12.

But the close games in Philadelphia have really only been close by a relative measure. The 1998 game at Franklin Field was scoreless for most of the first half, with the Lions delivering some memorably punishing hits on Quaker runners and receivers. But, the offense never showed up, and the defense finally faltered in a 20-0 loss. The 2000 contest featured some nice offense by Columbia, but little defense in a 43-25 loss. The 2002 game was a rout and the 2004 game was another defensive battle that was close until the fourth quarter as Penn won 14-3.

But while the Quakers seem to have lost a step since winning their last Ivy title in 2003, I still think this game will serve as a true measuring stick for the Lions' abilities. This has been the case since 1994, when Columbia lost to the eventual champion Quakers 12-3 in a game most everyone noticed because the Lions held Penn without a touchdown. I was at that game and I'll never forget how so many Penn fans came over to me to remark how impressed they were with Columbia's defense. Of course, the Lions went on to posting a 5-4-1 record that year, their first winning season since 1971.

A year later, the feisty Columbia squad beat the Quakers 24-14, handing Penn its first loss in more than a year. At that point, everyone knew the Lions were a legitimate title contender, but three weeks later against Princeton, starting QB Mike Cavanaugh went down with a broken leg and the season was over. Then, that thrilling OT win the following year became a cornerstone of the 8-2 1996 campaign.

Columbia hasn't had a winning season since then, and our futility against Penn has been a big reason why. Harvard and Brown have recently become pretty steady powers in the Ivies, but Penn is the constant. Penn is the team to beat year after year. If you can beat them, you can beat anybody. If you can play them close, you're probably not that far away.

Is this Defense Real?

And so now the Lions must prove their 3-1 record is not just a result of favorable scheduling and home field advantage. We know the offense is struggling, and will probably not have a breakout game against Penn's strong defense. But is the defense as good as it's looked so far? Columbia is giving up an incredible 11.7 points a game, and if you subtract the two points from the safety coughed up by the offense, the Lion "D" is only allowing 11.2 points a game. They're yielding a very impressive 155 yards passing per game and a respectable 108 yards on the ground per contest.

But the deeper you look at the numbers, the better it gets. Columbia has forced 15 turnovers, (compared to just five giveaways of our own), grabbing seven of its 14 forced fumbles and picking off eight passes. The Lion defense has 12 sacks, 33 tackles for a loss, and has allowed opponents to score when they get into the Columbia red zone just six of eleven times. This despite losing the time of possession battle by an average of more than two minutes a game. And remember, four of Columbia's eleven starting defensive players are freshmen or sophomores while just about all the reserves, who see more frequent action than any team in the league, are freshmen and sophomores. Defensive Coordinator Lou Ferrari is doing an excellent job keeping these kids motivated and in "learning mode." Columbia has had some great defenses in the last 20 years, but with the exception of the 1996 team, I have never seen a Lion defense that was as strong and never let down over 60 minutes week after week.

But all these defensive superlatives have come at home, and three of the Lions' opponents came in with very questionable offensive attacks. Penn's offense is definitely the weaker of the two units for the Quakers, but Penn has a better overall offensive player than the Lion defenders have faced all year in Joe Sandberg. I'll have more on Sandberg later this week, but stopping/containing him is the biggest challenge yet for the Lions "D."

But this game is more about Penn itself. Columbia is facing the mystique of Franklin Field, the dominance of Head Coach Al Bagnoli, and the challenge of its first road weekend. Victory is always the goal, but at the least the Lions need to play four tough quarters and make Penn feel lucky to win. The last time they did that was 1994, and the beginning of the best three consecutive years Columbia football had enjoyed since the mid-40's.

More Notes from the Iona Game

A few items about the 24-0 win over Iona last Saturday that didn't make it into Saturday's post:

1) I got a chance to see both squads make the long walk from the fieldhouse to the stadium before the game. Iona's guys were completely silent. Columbia's team was mostly quiet with a few players yelling out things like "This is our house," and "We have to teach them a lesson," from time to time. I noticed that Chad Musgrove started mugging for the cameras when he saw a few people with cameras taking some shots. He looked like he knew he was going to have a big game and he did.

2) Usche Osadebe got his first start on the offensive line. I've written a lot about how Osadebe made the big switch from defensive line star to the O-line, only to fail to crack the starting lineup. It's hard to say how well he did, and I think he mostly got the start because Daniel Palmer was a little injured, but I was happy to see Usche in there.

3) Austin Knowlin made a nice play on the one-yard TD pass that gave the Lions a 7-0 lead. The pass from Hormann was basically a screen, and Knowlin needed to make a shifty little move to get in the end zone. When he first caught the ball, I honestly thought he was going to be tackled at the one.

4) Columbia ran a play early in the game where they used four wide receivers and stacked three of them on their right side. Then Jordan Davis took the ball and ran around the end behind those blockers for an eight yard gain. I thought we would see that play again, but we didn't. I wonder if that was something they were trying out for the Penn game and wanted to keep under wraps as much as possible.

5) The Lions play-calling at the end of the first half was a little weird. The drive started at the Columbia 46 with 59 seconds left. Columbia then went with six straight pass plays, but none was to the end zone. Luckily, the last pass was dropped, otherwise, time may have run out before Rocholl's 42-yard field goal as the gun sounded.

6) Late in the second quarter, freshman linebacker Justin Masorti made a super play. On 3rd and eight from the Iona 31, Gael quarterback Michael Biehl tried to run to his left along the west sideline. Masorti ran all the way across the field and sacked him for no gain. It was the kind of play the great Lawrence Taylor used to make for the Giants. Masorti was one of the last guys who should have made that tackle, but he did. He is fast and strong, and it looks like whatever they put in the water in his hometown of State College, PA is still running through his veins despite his new address on Morningside Heights.


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