Mid-Season Report Card
After five games the Lions are 3-2 and 0-2 in the Ivy League. Their Ivy League losing streak now stands at 13 games. But there are a lot of positive changes on this team and, for the most part, Columbia seems to be heading in the right direction.
Columbia's offense last season consisted mostly of the deep threat wide receiver Brandon Bowser. He seemed to score every week, even in games when the Lions were blown out. The now-graduated Bowser's big-gainers not only got CU on the board, but they skewed the offensive statistics, making QB Craig Hormann look a little better than he was.
With Bowser gone, Columbia has struggled in every facet of its offense, with one exception. The Lions offensive line has improved greatly in pass protection, giving up just five sacks in five games, compared to 33 sacks surrendered during all of last season. But the offensive line continues to struggle mightily in run blocking, and this weakness has poisoned the rest of the offense's chances to score points week after week.
Sophomore tailback Jordan Davis has improved since last year, but not by any great degree. He often doesn't have any holes to work with, and he's not aggressive enough to create his own. After last week's loss to Penn, Davis fell 31 yards below a 600-yards-for-the-season pace he'll need to help the Lions win games. Columbia has only two rushing touchdowns, and Davis has neither. Backup James Cobb has shown some flashes of brilliance, but he's not the answer. There really haven't been enough carries for any of Columbia's other runners to rate them fairly, but it may be time to spread the ball around, especially to the fullbacks, to see if they can use their size to grind out some yards. For Columbia to attempt no rushing plays after a first and goal from the four last week at Penn shows just how far the Lions have to go in this area.
Craig Hormann seems to have taken a step back from what was a somewhat encouraging sophomore season in 2005. Many of his throws have been a little off-target and he continues to have trouble scrambling for any yardage whatsoever. His completion percentage is down to 53.1% and his yards per attempt stat is at 5.5, also down from last season. Coach Wilson doesn't seem to be ready to yank Hormann, but it may be time to give sophomore Chris Allison a chance in some parts of the upcoming games if Columbia's offense continues to struggle in the early going.
At the beginning of the season, we expected heavy participation from tight ends Jamal Russell and Troy Evangelist. But Russell has been plagued with a series of dropped passes, and Evangelist hasn't had one reception yet. It's not clear why Columbia isn't using these guys more often in the offense, but it may have something to do with the fact that the down linemen need as much help as they can get. It may simply be a case of the coaches not being able to spare the tight ends as receiving weapons. It's yet another example of the offensive lines' weaknesses poisoning the entire attack.
The wide receivers are playing pretty well. Freshman Austin Knowlin is a real sparkplug and he certainly makes one optimistic about the future of the program. Seniors Nick DeGasperis and Adrian Demko have done pretty well and while junior Tim Paulin needs work, he's getting into the mix and using his speed well. One can only imagine how dangerous this unit would be if the running game were just a little better. As it is now, opposing defenses can really concentrate on pass coverage.
Overall Offensive Grade: D
What a difference a year makes! Defensive Coordinator Lou Ferrari has made the most of his second tour of duty as a Columbia coach. His 3-5-3 defensive scheme is allowing defenders to get to the ball quicker and confusing opposing offenses with all the pre-snap movement. Most importantly, the system is allowing the defense's bevy of freshman and sophomore players make the most of their abilities and hiding their inexperience.
The defensive line, made up of starters Todd Abrams, Darren Schmidt and Philip Mitchell has done a great job of stopping the run, something the Lions could not do last season. Of course a lot of the credit for that belongs to the excellent linebacking crew, but everything starts up front. They're allowing 117.8 yards rushing per game compared to 236 yards allowed per game last season. That's better than a 50% improvement. Opposing rushers are getting just 3.2 yards a carry compared to 4.9 last season, (down 34.6%). They've allowed just two rushing touchdowns all season, compared to 26 given up at the end of last year. And the Lions have 13 sacks at mid-season, when they recorded 16 all of last year. But what the stats don't show is the frequency with which Lion defenders end up in the opposing backfield, and the intensity of the hits they're doling out as well.
The big play-makers are the linebackers, led by senior tri-captain Adam Brekke. Brekke seems to be in on every tackle, taking his job as the defensive field general with gusto. Sophomore Drew Quinn and freshman Andy Shalbrack are not far behind making big plays with surprisingly regularity. Freshmen Justin Masorti and Lou Miller have battled each other nicely for one inside linebacker starting spot each week and it seems to be making both of them better players, (although it looks like Masorti has emerged as the slightly better player). Another brilliant move has been moving the ever-aggressive and hard-working Justin Nunez from the secondary into the key "spur" slot at linebacker, where he is getting a chance to stop the run, sack the QB, and still make interceptions.
Despite being undermanned, the Columbia secondary is still strong. Senior Tad Crawford is still leading the way at free safety, and junior Chad Musgrove is a threat to pick off balls and return them for touchdowns. The third starter, 5"7 junior Jo Jo Smith, hasn't let anyone take advantage of his size. The Lions gave up a respectable 183 yards in the air per game last year, and they've whittled that down to 163 yards so far this season. More importantly, they've already picked off nine passes compared to just eight all of last season.
And the final stat is the most important; points allowed. The Lions are giving up just 12.2 points a game compared to 33.7 a year ago. Enough said.
Overall Defensive Grade: A
A mixed bag. Kicker Jon Rocholl is still doing a great job as a punter and his field goal kicking is still extremely impressive. But almost every other aspect of the Columbia special teams needs work. The Lion return game is almost non-existent. Too many opposing punts are not even returned, and Columbia loses 5-15 yards every time they hit the ground and roll. Kickoff returns aren't yielding the Lions much either. Covering opposing kicks was a big problem early in the season, but it seems like some of those problems have been solved. With the Lions' offensive problems, this unit needs to do more to spark the team.
Overall Special Teams Grade: C+
Head Coach Norries Wilson is firing up a young team week after week. It really shows on defense, where Columbia is avoiding the usual let down despite little help from the offense. Wilson has made some questionable decisions to go for it on a number of 4th downs, but he has been consistent in his intensity, and frankly, none of his gambles has cost the Lions a game. Both of Columbia's two losses hinged on a lot more than one or two 4th down plays. Wilson's tirade, (see below), after the Penn game is mostly a positive thing, as he never got down on his own players and showed he's not happy with the state of things in the Ivy League.
Wilson's weaknesses right now center on the offense, which is struggling terribly. He has half a season to get some improvement out of these guys, and he should consider shuffling the lineup a little more than he seems to be willing to do right now.
But Wilson has generally been a pleasure and he certainly has a chance to become one of the best coaches Columbia has ever had.
Overall Coaching Grade: B+