Wednesday, September 05, 2007

The 10-Day Countdown Begins

This kid has been waiting to watch a game since he was in diapers

The Columbia Lions football team last played a competitive game against an outside opponent on November 24, 2006. That was 285 days ago, and yet there are still 10 more days before regular season action begins for the Lions and all the other Ivy football teams on September 15th.

An annual 295-day offseason can drive a person mad, and it certainly fuels a lot of my passion for the sport. I guess sometimes less really is more, but the anticipation becomes a bit unbearable at times, especially when football hopes are high on Morningside Heights.

So with 10 days to go, let's talk about 10 overriding issues facing this team in 2007.

1. Irrational Exuberance?

The last time Columbia entered a new season with a two-game winning streak was 1997. But no one expected that team that had just lost Marcellus Wiley and Rory Wilfork to do very much. The 45-7 season-opening loss at Harvard confirmed those low expectations, but a scrappy defense did provide some decent moments in what ended up being a 3-7 season with a shutout win over Princeton, a solid Homecoming triumph over Yale, and squeaker against Towson.

Four years earlier, the 1993 Lions were hoping the momentum from winning the final two games of the '92 season would carry over into the new season. But those two wins were also largely the work of a graduated player, Des Werthman. 1993 turned out to be a disappointing season, as the Lions finished 2-8, but the groundwork was laid that year for the winning seasons Columbia posted in 1994 and then again in 1996.

The 2007 Lions bring back just about all the key components in the machine that overcame Cornell and Brown to finish out last year on a two-game winning streak. Adam Brekke, Tad Crawford, and Todd Abrams are tough losses to graduation, but not irreplaceable on a defense with young stars like Andy Shalbrack, Phil Mitchell, Justin Masorti and returning veterans like Bayo Aregbe. And while the offense did not always execute very well in 2006, the most spectacular weapon, 2006 Ivy League Rookie of the Year Austin Knowlin, is now just a sophomore with his eyes set on accomplishing much more in 2007.

You could throw some cold water on all the optimism by pointing out QB Craig Hormann's injury and the fact that Columbia's opponents will be gunning for them more than last year, but let me disabuse you of some of those notions.

Hormann's apparent inability to start one or more of the first few games this season is a blow, especially after he performed so well at the end of last season. But this Columbia team has more depth than any in recent memory, and the excellent play of Temple transfer Shane Kelly has many at Columbia believing the quarterback position will not be a problem this season. My impression is that even in a worst case scenario, Hormann will be back early enough to potentially "salvage the season" if things really are that bad after the first few games.

As for the theory that other teams took it easy on us last year and now won't be as forgiving... well, that's ridiculous. If anything, Columbia's reputation as a perennial loser makes opponents work even HARDER to avoid the embarrassment of falling to a team always perceived as a weakling. I realize many players are motivated by the chance to win championships, but I think the fear of screwing up is more pervasive. In short, no one gave Columbia a pass last year, and no opponents are going to be more fired up this season simply because the Lions had a decent season in 2006.

This is all a long way of saying that Columbia may not be a championship team in 2007, and the Lions may struggle to go 6-4 or even 5-5 again, but the optimism surrounding this team by experienced fans is hardly irrational.

2. Running Game Must Improve

The biggest tangible challenge still facing this Lions team is the running game. From what I've seen, there definitely will be improvement on the ground this season from the pathetic 67 yards per game average in 2006. But I'm not expecting miracles either. We may have to settle for 80 or 85 yards per game and hope that a few more short yardage situations will be solved by staying on the ground. Junior Jordan Davis is still probably going to be the main man at tailback, but sophomore Ray Rangel should get into the mix more and help out considerably.

I do expect much more of a noticeable improvement from the offensive line. That means much fewer running plays for negative yards, and more time for successful screen passes and draws to develop. Ralph DeBernardo and Mike Brune seem to be locked in at the tackle slots and could be an All-Ivy tandem. The guard positions will yield more this year too as Nathan Walcker and John Seiler look good to me right now. Seiler is a bit of a question mark as a sophomore, but he's coming from an excellent high school program in Georgia.

In 2006, the running game went from "disaster," to "fire sale." This season, we're looking for "decent."

3. Can the Defense Keep it Up?

There's lots of talk about how Columbia's opponents will now be able to beat the 3-5-3 defense because now they'll have seen it as opposed to last year when they did not. Well, that line of reasoning only makes sense for Fordham because every other CU opponent got to see plenty of film of our 3-5-3 throughout the season.

But if you're intent on buying that familiarity argument, you have to also buy that Columbia will be running the 3-5-3 better as our players have had more time to grasp the system. Co-Captain Drew Quinn's understanding of this defense, and his ability to direct the troops on the field has increased dramatically. That should help the incoming freshmen like Marc Holloway, who unlike last year's freshmen, have the luxury of coaches AND teammates reinforcing the niceties of the defensive plan.

And then there are the players who transcend any understanding of a defensive scheme, like DE Phil Mitchell and linebacker Justin Masorti. While guys like Andy Shalbrack thrive in the 3-5-3, Mitchell is an extremely well-built weapon who could really create blocking nightmares for a lot of teams in a league that suddenly seems to be devoid of experienced offensive lines. Masorti is just a hitter, who aggressively gets after the ball every time. I think both of these key players will be even better in 2007.

I'm not sure the Lions will give up as little as 16.3 points per game like they did in 2006. But I think there is a good chance they will match and even exceed that feat in 2007.

4. Tougher Team, Tougher Schedule

It continues to look like the 2007 schedule will be harder than the 2006 slate. Fordham seems improved, and instead of Patriot League weakling Georgetown at home, Columbia is playing Patriot powerhouse Lafayette on the road, (and CU has NEVER won at Lafayette).

Of course, the relative difficulty of the schedule can and will change one way or another as the season plays out. But this is one concern I'm not willing to blow off this year. Columbia's five victories came against who I thought were the five weakest opponents of 2006. The one quality team the Lions defeated was Cornell at Wien Stadium, but Cornell was just awful in most games away from home. Brown had its moments at the early part of the season, but was playing like the worst team in the league by the final week.

The Lions did not embarrass themselves in any of the games against the top opponents in 2006, but they never seriously looked like they were going to beat Princeton, Yale or Harvard either. Going for a respectable showing against tougher opponents just won't cut it this time because there are too many tough opponents on the schedule.

5. Someone Needs to Emerge

Six freshmen really made an impact on the field in 2006, and while I don't think that many will be relied upon to boost the 2007 Lions, some new blood is going to be needed. It's just so hard to tell where that help will come from, but this did seem like an exceptionally talented recruiting class. My money is on guys like Marc Holloway and Matt Moretto to shine at linebacker, Calvin Otis to contribute in the secondary, and Nico Gutierez to be an offensive or special teams weapon. But this is really the toughest call to make at this point. All we do know is that Columbia will need something from the class of 2011 this fall.

6. Can Jon Rocholl Kick it Up a Notch?

Jon Rocholl is a very talented kicker and punter who should have another excellent season in 2007. But he's going to have to have a more consistent season, and find a way to kick field goals as well from 30-39 yards out as he does from 40-45 yards out. For some strange reason, Rocholl was more reliable from further away in 2006, and the team needs for him to get better from closer in without sacrificing his rarer long-range abilities.

I thought Rocholl's punting was more steady than his placekicking last year, so that is not a real concern. But I am wondering who will take on the newly difficult task of kicking off from the 30 and not the 35. I noticed a lot of touchbacks on kickoffs to start games last week, but by the end of many games, it was clear the added distance was putting a big strain on the kickoff specialists. Mike Siebold may take that job, but there is no indication on that yet.

7. Return Game Issues

Columbia got about as much out of its return game in 2006 as it got from the running game... nada. That was especially frustrating because the offense needed as much help as it could get, and with a long-range FG boomer like Rocholl, a good return or two could have changed the complexion of a lot of games. I'm not sure how much time the team has had to work on punt and kick returns this summer, but hopefully some kind of threat will emerge.

Kick coverage was not great, but not too bad either. Columbia only needs a slight improvement here to make an impact.

8. Tight End Tight Rope

For a new starting QB, a nice big tight end is like a security blanket. Kelly or whoever starts the season for the Lions will have that in Troy Evangelist, who may still need to work on his blocking, but he makes a nice target at 6"6 and 259 points. I expect Jamal Russell to improve as well, especially after nice performances in the final two games of 2006. The flip side to all of this is that if the tight ends don't improve, there could be some real trouble for both the running and passing games this year.

9. Keeping the Ball off the Turf

Columbia's turnover ratio in 2006 was a strong plus-10. But when the Lions did turn the ball over, specifically in consecutive games versus Penn, Dartmouth, and Yale, they REALLY paid for it. The biggest factor in losing Hormann for any amount of time at QB is you also lose the incredible sure-handedness of a passer who threw just six interceptions in 10 starts, just one INT in more than 100 3rd down passes, and no INT's in his last 119 passes of 2006. Kelly or M.A. Olawale probably won't be as strong at avoiding the pick offs, and that could be a key factor in the early stages of this season.

But if Davis can cut down on his fumbles, (which were few in 2006, but very costly), and wide receivers like Tim Paulin get more sure-handed, then that positive turnover ratio could be matched or even exceeded this time around.

10. Will the People Come?

Columbia fans mostly stayed away during what turned out to be a very strong year in 2006. The Homecoming crowd versus Princeton didn't even reach 9,000 and the final home game attendance on a beautiful day versus Cornell was under 4,500. The Yom Kippur game against Marist at home is probably not going to be pretty attendance-wise, (although I am NOT yet giving up on that one drawing a nice crowd of students), but with home opponents like Penn, Yale and Harvard on the slate there should be much better attendance this season overall.

I think the team really needs the attention. I know a lot of alumni who used to come to a lot more games read this blog, so now is the time for me to urge you to switch off the computer and show up at Baker Field. I think a few games with 10,000 or more fans this season will absolutely translate into an added win or two.

The Great Lou Little (Credit: Columbia Athletics)

I got a nice surprise in the mail yesterday. It was a DVD of legendary Columbia Coach Lou Little's former players reminiscing about what it was like to play for him. Lou's former players were honored on the field at the Cornell game last year, and these interviews were taped the day before at a reunion event. The DVD was dedicated in memory of Hugh Barber, who had some memorable quotes in the video, but he died in the months after the event.

There were some great other interviews on the DVD, and I found some of the quotes from Eugene Rossides to be the most most memorable.


At Thu Sep 06, 01:44:00 AM GMT+7, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nobody took it easy on us last year, especially that no class creep of a coach from Yale who clled time out with 6 seconds left to run in a meaningless TD to "look better" instead of taking a knee.

At Thu Sep 06, 03:00:00 AM GMT+7, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jake: I agree with your more tempered analysis of our season. Yes, we are a better team, but are we better than the teams that beat us last year?

I also agree that maintaining the positive turnover ratio and having an improved running game are key. The defense creating turnovers last year greatly compensated for some of our offensive weakness, and we're going to need that kind of help again.

Last year we were fortunate to avoid injuries to key players...we need more of that good fortune too--although I was impressed that losing Chad Musgrove (not to injuries of course) did not slow the team down--our two league wins came after he was gone.

Your comments on the kicking game are also on point. I see some upside for point production there. If an improved running game adds some balance to our offense and help us get a little more out of our drives, we should be able to score more points off the kicking game this year. If the defense can contain other teams as well as they did last year, field goals could make the difference in a couple of games.


At Thu Sep 06, 03:07:00 AM GMT+7, Anonymous Anonymous said...

When will we see a two deep for the Harvard scrimmage. Jake, are you going to cover it?

At Thu Sep 06, 04:13:00 AM GMT+7, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jake: From the parent of a current player, thanks for the insight and hard work.
For the fans: Let's just support the team, get out there, bring your friends and family, have a great day and hope we're all singing the fight song in victory at the end!!

At Wed Sep 12, 05:19:00 AM GMT+7, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anything doing re Leon Ivery?
I have no way of knowing what kind of high school competition he faced, but 10-plus yds per carry would be great even in a church recreational league.


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