Princeton 19 Columbia 6
Arriving at Baker Field
(psst... the Harlem River Drive rocks)!
I got to Baker Field well before noon to enjoy as much of the Homecoming amenities as possible. For the last six years that I've been living outside of Manhattan, getting to the games on time has been a bit of a challenge mostly because of an evil stretch of road called the Cross Bronx Expressway. As it was well-documented in Robert Caro's masterpiece The Power Broker, the Cross Bronx is almost always backed up, even when there's relatively light traffic, because of the way it was designed. There has rarely been a time later than 7am on a weekend when I haven't experienced major backups on that cursed road. Well, no more! On Friday, I did some fiddling around on Map Quest and Yahoo! Maps and found that I could take the Tri-Boro Bridge to the Harlem River drive, which dumps me onto Dyckman Street just about 15 blocks from Baker Field! The Harlem River Drive had NO TRAFFIC at 11:30am and I flew right uptown. You can also avoid most, but not all, of the Cross Bronx if you ditch it for the Major Deegan Expressway after about five miles, but five miles on the Cross Bronx can take an hour. It's the Harlem River Drive for me from now on. If you're coming to Baker Field from Long Island, it should be your route too.
With the new artificial surface field hockey turf serving as the spot for the Homecoming tent and the free beverage/concert area, things were comfortable for me, my 3 1/2 year old, and two friends I brought along. They also set up some carnival-like attractions for the kids, which were a welcome sight for me as a parent about to force my child to sit still for 3+ hours in a football stadium.
The university is doing a great job making game day a nicer experience for everyone who can't afford the $2,500+ donation to get a parking spot and their own tailgate. Turnout has been mixed to the free beverage area, (which includes one free beer per hour), so I hope they don't drop this nice addition next season.
My daughter walked away with a lot of free stuff and was a major object of attention as she chatted up the cheerleaders, Roar-EE the lion mascot, and amazed everyone with her perfect renditions of "Roar Lion Roar," "Who Owns New York?, and "Stand Up and Cheer." It occurs to me as a happily married man that my daughter's abilities to bring attractive women over to me are pretty wasted. I need to find a single friend who can use her powers to a productive end.
I also had another chance to talk to senior nose tackle Todd Abrams' mother, (also know as the "cowbell lady"), before the game. She told me the security guards wouldn't let her bring the cowbell into the stadium for the Fordham game, but I think they relented Saturday as I'm pretty sure I heard it clanging during the game. It was nice to see her again and congratulate her on Todd's touchdown in week one.
On To the Game
Entering Wien Stadium, it was a little disappointing to see a mostly empty home side and VERY empty road stands on the west side of the field. However, the crowd never stopped flowing in and the final attendance figure was more than 8,800. Some people may have been scared off by the suddenly overcast weather as the clouds started to gather just before game time. But the rain held off the entire game, with just a little drizzle in the late moments of the 4th quarter. A few more wins, especially against Ivy teams, will be the key to boosting the attendance numbers this season. But I fear this coming Saturday's game against a weak and unknown Iona team will feature attendance below 5,000.
What's keeping the Princeton faithful away is beyond me. Obviously, there are a lot of PU alums here in the New York area, and most of them missed a chance to see their team put up a strong performance and prove they really are a very good squad. I expect Princeton to make a serious run at the Ivy title; something I did not believe was possible a month ago. More on that later.
I liked the way the entire starting offense and defense was introduced on the video board with live-action video of the players as their names are announced. It lends a very professional feel to the lineup intros that used to be yelled out quickly over the band while the players took the field.
There was a moderate wind blowing north at the time of the coin flip, so when Princeton won the toss, the Tigers elected to take the wind and kickoff. The wind shifted a number of times during the game, but this still turned out to be a great strategic move because it allowed Princeton's defense to set the tone.
Freshman Josh A. Williams took the kickoff and returned it 12 yards to the CU 26. Columbia's return game has been weak and boring all year, and the coverage has been shaky. They are the only weaknesses on an otherwise strong special teams and I'd like to see that improve in the coming weeks.
In what would become a microcosm of the entire game, Columbia went three-and-out on this first possession and had to punt. The series ended with an incomplete pass intended to Adrian Demko on 3rd and two. The Lions would end the game a startling zero for eleven on third down conversions.
But Columbia's defense set a nice tone to start the game as well. Princeton got great field position after a nice 12-yard return to its own 42 by Brian Shields. The Tigers got a quick first down on a 21-yard pass to the CU 37 from QB Jeff Terrell to Brendan Circle, but the Lion "D" stiffened after that. Princeton went for it on 4th and 6 from the 33, but the pass fell incomplete and Columbia got the ball back.
Lion quarterback Craig Hormann got a quick six-yard completion to Jim Besselman followed by a five-yard run by Jordan Davis for a first down. But this would be the last first down Columbia would earn from scrimmage until the fourth quarter. Three plays later, Jon Rocholl had to punt it back to the Tigers, and then he pressed into more dire service when Princeton returner Brian Shields split the Columbia coverage and started streaking down the west sideline. Rocholl not only forced him out of bounds, he stripped the ball, but it fell harmlessly out of bounds at the Lion 38.
The Tigers got one first down, but on 2nd and nine from the CU 22, Terrell was rushed hard and he threw a desperation pass that freshman Andy Shalbrack intercepted at the 14 and returned to the Columbia 27. Shalbrack has done nothing to question his status as a starter since opening day. He and sophomores Drew Quinn and Phillip Mitchell had yet another big game Saturday and they are certainly breeding healthy optimism for the next few years of Columbia football.
Of course, Columbia did not take advantage of Shalbrack's pick and after another three and out, Rocholl had to punt. This time he got off a beauty of a 41-yard kick that Shields fair caught at the Tiger 26. But this is where Princeton would begin a patient seven-minute and 40-second drive that would essentially win them the game. The first big play was a 36-yard run on 2nd and 13 from the PU 23 by R.C. Lagomarsino that ended at the Lion 41. Two plays later, on the first play of the second quarter, Terrell converted the second key play by completing a 15-yard pass to Rob Toresco out of the backfield on 3rd and nine from the CU 40. The final key play was the touchdown itself. The Lions seemed to be putting together another goal line stand in the tradition of the nice defensive effort they showed late in the game the previous week against Georgetown. The Tigers had 1st and goal on the Columbia 3 and the Lions gave up a two-yard gain to Lagomarsino before stuffing Terrell on two straight runs, forcing a fumble on the second, but Terrell recovered it himself. On fourth and goal from the one, Princeton elected not only to go for it, but to do so from the no-huddle offense. At this point, I thought Columbia should have called timeout, but the Tigers got the play off and Terrell found an open Billy Mitchell for the touchdown.
The next five minutes of the game seemed to point to a major Princeton blowout, as the Tiger defense forced another three and out, and a nice return but them at the 50 yard line to start their next drive. It took just three minutes and 53 seconds for Princeton to make it 14-0 after Lagomarsino dashed four yards around the left corner to the end zone. The key play on the drive was another big pass from Terrell to Circle; 26 yards to Columbia 22 on 3rd and eight.
Columbia went three and out again on the next possession, but a good punt put the Tigers back at their own 22 with 3:50 to go in the half. Columbia's best moment of the game came on the first play when Terrell was flushed out of the pocket and he threw a pass that Lion defensive lineman Phillip Mitchell intercepted at the Princeton 15. During the return Mitchell seemed to hand it off cleanly to freshman linebacker Justin Masorti who took it to the end zone. But the refs ruled it was a forward lateral and backed Columbia up to the Tiger 13. For some reason, the Lions had no trouble with that as Hormann found a wide open Austin Knowlin in the west side of the north end zone for a quick touchdown on the next play. Why Columbia couldn't connect on another play like this the rest of the game is a mystery. Perhaps it was because the Tiger defense was caught off-guard by the quick turnover. The ensuing PAT provided a shock as Rocholl missed his first kick of the season and only his second career extra point, when the ball hit the west upright and fell wide. Still at 14-6 the crowd was back into it and there was some nice buzz going around the stadium.
That buzz got stronger after senior tri-captain Adam Brekke sacked Terrell on 3rd and 11 from the Princeton 26, forcing a punt that gave the Lions the ball back at their own 33 with 1:26 to go in the half. Earlier in the series, Todd Abrams and senior lineman Darren Schmidt combined on a tackle of Lagomarsino for a four yard loss.
But the Lions couldn't do anything with the ball. On 3rd and 10, Hormann found Davis for only an eight yard gain and Columbia chose to punt. Princeton took over from its 28, got one first down on a Terrell-to-Lagomarsino pass to their 40, but then let the clock run out.
The halftime atmosphere was pretty good as the clouds broke and the bands put on a pretty good show. One odd highlight took place when a couple of Columbia students unveiled a banner with an obscenity and then had to avoid the security guards who chased them across the visitors stands.
Later, the Columbia teams from 1961 and 1996 were honored on the field and with a nice highlight video on the scoreboards. I hope they make these videos, including the intro from Brian Dennehy at the start, on the Sidelion pass on the Columbia athletics Web site.
The second half began with an impressive Princeton drive that started at the Tiger 24 and didn't stall until the Columbia 21. The killer aspect of the drive was FOUR CONSECUTIVE first down rushes by Lagomarsino for a total of 42 yards, taking Princeton from its 42 to the Columbia 16. But then the Lion defense stiffened. On 3rd and nine from the CU 15, Schmidt and freshman Lou Miller combined for a monster tackle of Lagomarsino for a six-yard loss. Conner Louden's field goal attempt hit the same upright as Rocholl's failed extra point attempt earlier in the game, and the score remained 14-6.
Then came the moment that would seal Columbia's fate. After one of tight end Jamal Russell's key drops, the Lions faced a 4th and one from their 31 on the ensuing possession, but failed miserably when they went for it on a Jordan Davis run and loss of one yard, handing Princeton the ball back at the CU 30. After the game, Head Coach Norries Wilson blamed himself for the call and the three points Princeton got on the ensuing drive. It was a gutsy call to go for it, but one that seemed weak considering Columbia's offensive problems. I actually think it didn't make that much of a difference, as I seriously doubt Columbia could have scored on offense at all during the course of the game.
Princeton's three points did not come easily. On 4th and 13 from the CU 33, Terrell threw an incomplete pass, but the Tigers got a second chance when Schmidt was called for roughing the passer. It was a rare mistake for Schmidt who had an otherwise sterling day. Even with the gift, Princeton got no closer than the CU 6, and the Tigers settled for a 23-yard Louden field goal and a 17-6 lead.
The Lions went three and out again on the next possession, but they got a nice gift when Brian Shields muffed the Rocholl punt and freshman Jason Pyles made a great play to recover it before it went out of bounds on the west sidelines at the Princeton 36.
However, the Lions offense gave it right back. On 3rd and five from the 31, Hormann threw a very ill-advised pass to Jordan Davis when Brig Walker was all over him like a cheap suit. Walker picked it off with an acrobatic catch and the Tigers had the ball back at their 33. This was the Lions only turnover of the day and it killed whatever optimism remained as the fourth quarter began.
And yet the Columbia defense did not give up and it did not tire. On 3rd and two from the Princeton 41, Shalbrack came up big again and stopped Toresco for a three-yard loss.
On the next possession starting from their own 17, the Lions actually started showing some life. Hormann found Knowlin for two first down passes, setting Columbia up at the Tiger 46. But the Lions stalled there and a pass on 4th and seven from the 43 was dropped by Knowlin and the Lions never got into Princeton territory again.
Still, no let up from the defense. The Tigers got as far as the Columbia 40 when sophomore Drew Quinn made another big play and forced a Toresco fumble that Schmidt recovered at the 37. Quinn finished the day with 14 tackles and takes home my Columbia MVP for the second time this season.
Once again, Columbia could not move the ball, although they would get one first down thanks to an offsides penalty. The only other significant moment came on the next Lion possession when Hormann was rushed in the end zone and he simply tossed it out of the back for a safety. 19-6 Princeton.
By this time the drizzle had started and the mass exodus had begun. But because of the strong defensive effort, it wasn't so hard to walk away from this game. I quickly reminded those around me that we lost to this Princeton team by 40 points last year, and you could make the argument that the Tigers are even better this year, especially at QB and wide receiver. Improvement is going to be slow at times, and we'll find out just how slow when Columbia takes on weaker teams like Dartmouth and Cornell later on this year.
Drew Quinn, see above.
COLUMBIA GOATS OF THE GAME
Jamal Russell and Craig Hormann
This has to be a shared award because while Russell dropped three passes that would have gone for first downs, Hormann seemed too hesitant most of the day and had serious trouble running and throwing on the run. A lot of this is mitigated by the great defensive play from Princeton, (Columbia may not face as good a defense the rest of the year), but these guys didn't step up when they needed to time after time.