Coach Wilson helped the Lions avoid some familiar mistakes (CREDIT: Columbia Athletics Dept.)
I suspect that most long-time Lions fans do just what I do during the course of every season. I look for signs beyond the won-lost record to see if the current Columbia football team is shedding some of the long-time bad habits, and bad luck from the past.
Forgive me for getting all archaic here, but the Talmud teaches that one is only truly repentant when he faces the same evil temptation he succumbed to earlier, but this time has the strength to overcome it. Faced with a number of familiar challenges of the past, the 2006 Lions, and the football gods who have punished Columbia for decades, showed strong signs of "repentance."
Andy Shalbrack made an early impression in the Fordham game (CREDIT: Columbia Athletics Dept.)
Metamorphosis #1: Lady Luck Shines on the Hudson
The situation: In the week 1 meeting against Fordham, the Lions have a 13-7 lead early in the third quarter. Facing a 3rd and one from his one 29, Columbia quarterback Craig Hormann throws a pass that is intercepted by Earl Hudnell and returned for a touchdown that seeming ties the game. But a little yellow flag is lying on the turf at the CU 20 yard line. Fordham is called for roughing the passer. No touchdown. No interception. Columbia gets a first down and eventually increases their lead at the end of the possession with a 42-yard Jon Rocholl field goal. Instead of 14-13 Fordham, it's 16-7 Lions.
Obviously the roughing the passer call wasn't the result of anything Columbia did well. But anyone who's watched the Lions over the years knows we very rarely get that call. When Hudnell went into the end zone, I had visions of the 1991 game at Baker Field when the Lions blew a 16-6 lead and lost to the Rams, 20-16 in part because of an interception returned for a TD. Sometimes it's better to be lucky than good.
Metamorphosis #2: Waking Up Just in Time
The situation: After taking a third quarter 20-0 lead on Georgetown, Columbia is in trouble. Back-up Hoya QB Matt Bassauner has led his team to two touchdowns and late in the fourth quarter Georgetown is knocking on the door with a first and goal at the Lion two. Suddenly, the defense regains its composure and stops the Hoyas on first and second down before sacking Bassauner for a six-yard loss on 3rd down. Then the Hoyas botch their field goal attempt giving Columbia the ball back at their own 12. The the offense also wakes up and puts together an impressive drive all the way to the Georgetown seven. Jon Rocholl's 23-yard field goal ices the game.
Columbia has lost many big leads in the recent past, and this game was following a familiar horrific script. For the offense and the defense to step up at the same crucial point in the game was more than a little encouraging, even against a relatively weak opponent like Georgetown. This game was a clear sign that the coaching staff was motivating the team well.
Austin Knowlin's TD against Princeton was courtesy of the defense (CREDIT: Columbia Athletics Dept.)
Metamorphosis #3: No Let Down
The situation: Falling behind early against Princeton in the homecoming game at Baker Field, Columbia's offense just can't get anything going against the Tigers. The lone Lion score is gift wrapped by the defense after an interception inside the Princeton 10-yard line. But unlike so many Columbia teams of the past, the defense never lets up despite the lack of help from the other side of the ball. In the kind of tight game that stereotypically turns into a blowout by the fourth quarter, the Lions stay close and fall to the eventual league champs by a non-embarrassing 19-6 final score.
Losses aren't anything to be proud of, but it was very encouraging to see Columbia's defense avoid the physical and mental fatigue that has plagued so many teams in the past, (including the great 1996 team, which collapsed defensively against Princeton in the early going and all day against Dartmouth the week later). Losing is one thing, but getting pounded in the final minutes after playing respectfully for the rest of the game is something that's happened too often to the Lions. Columbia wasn't really routed in any of its five losses in 2006, and this loss set that tone.
Masorti's sack against Cornell was huge, but the Lions needed more (CREDIT: Columbia Athletics Dept.)
Metamorphosis #4: Refusing to Lose
The situation: Leading Cornell 21-14 in the fourth quarter, Columbia is facing what seems like the Big Red's last gasp of the game. With a 3rd and two at the Columbia 19, Phillip Mitchell and Darren Schmidt stuff Cornell back Luke Siwula for no gain. On the ensuing 4th and two, Justin Masorti makes one of the most dramatic plays of the year, sacking Big Red QB Nathan Ford to give the Lions the ball at their own 30. But Columbia's offense is unable to ice the game, losing five yards on three running plays and then being forced to punt the ball back to Cornell with 1:51 left. Bryan Walters makes a spectacular 27-yard return to put the Big Red right back in it with a 1st and 10 at the Columbia 32 with 1:38 left. But after an illegal motion penalty on Cornell, Lion linebacker Drew Quinn makes a big interception and returns the ball all the way back to the Big Red 32. The game is finally over.
When Walters made the big punt return, I was reminded of the 2000 game against Cornell, when a short kickoff led to a late Big Red touchdown and dashed Columbia's hope for a win. Once again, these Lions met a similar situation and responded with a different and better result.
Nick DeGasperis had a key catch in the dramatic final drive at Brown (CREDIT: Columbia Athletics Dept.)
Metamorphosis #5: The Drive for Five
The situation: After overcoming deficits of 14-0 and 21-12 to Brown, Columbia gets back into the game early in the fourth quarter with a long TD drive that cuts the Bears lead to 21-19. But a lateral on the ensuing kickoff leads to a big return putting Brown at their own 45 with 9:42 to go. The Bears then take nearly six minutes to get to the Lion 27, where All-Ivy kicker Steve Morgan's 45-yard field goal attempt goes wide. With 3:49 left, Columbia begins its most crucial drive in eight years. The Lions convert their initial 3rd down with a six-yard pass to Austin Knowlin on 3rd and two from their own 35. On the ensuing play, Hormann finds Nick DeGasperis for a big 17-yard gain to the Brown 42. Four plays later the Lions are in trouble, facing a 3rd and nine from the Brown 29. A pass to Jamal Russell nets just eight yards and Columbia has to decide whether to go for it on 4th and one or try a 38-yard field goal. The Lions go for it, and Jordan Davis responds with a huge nine-yard dash to the Brown 12. Three plays later, Rocholl hits the game winning filed goal from 27 yards out, and Columbia has its first non-losing season in 10 years.
The end of this game was really reminiscent of the final minutes of the 1998 Columbia-Brown game at Wien Stadium. But instead of the Lions throwing an interception in the end zone on a crucial 4th down play, they held on to the ball and even converted a high-pressure 4th down and 1 to set up the winning kick. A win in that 1998 game would also have produced a 5-5 overall record for Columbia, but it wasn't to be. This time things turned out much better.
Has Columbia exorcised all the ghosts of the past 25-30 years? Of course not. There is a lot of work to do. But for one team to show so much poise where others have faltered is more than a little encouraging. And when you're blessed, (and cursed), with as good a memory as I am, there's a lot to be said for adding some sweet images to the list.
Draft Daddy's Pre Season All-Ivy
I missed this today, but the Eagle-eyed Bruce Wood, (I'll see you in 7 days), found the link to DraftDaddy.com's pre season picks for the best Ivy football players.
Columbia does very nicely with three picks, Craig Hormann at QB, Ralph DeBernardo on the offensive line, and Drew Quinn at linebacker.
Some of the choices were questionable, especially picking Luke Siwula ahead of Penn's Joe Sandberg, despite Siwula's fading star in Ithaca. But it's a decent list overall and clearly the knee-jerk disrespect for Columbia players is not as much of a factor right now.