Friday, October 31, 2008

Week 7 Picks

Last Week: 2-1

Overall 21-9

I was almost perfect with my picks last week, erring only by choosing Yale over Penn, (but to show how wishy washy I was about that choice, I actually picked Penn in private, no-money, Ivy pool I'm in every week).

Harvard over Dartmouth

This game is an imporant one for the Crimson as they need to prove they can win a game going away. The Big Green have a chance to make their season with a win here, but it doesn't look probable.

Princeton over Cornell

I think Princeton is one of the surprises this year, as they have played pretty well against their competition. Brian Anderson is a great QB, and it's a shame he's still a bit banged up. Cornell is really fading, and their usual homefield advantage is also about to go away tomorrow.

Brown over Penn

The battle for solo posession of 1st place seems like a clash of Brown's offense against Penn's defense. But don't be fooled, Brown's defense is a lot better than people think. The Bears only big question tomorrow is their running game, because passing alone won't be good enough against the Quakers.

Bobby Conroy 1959-2008

Bobby Conroy was an All-American boy

The last QB Bill Campbell ever coached at Columbia, Bobby Conroy '81, died this week at the too-young age of 49.

The Boston Globe obituary is here.

Conroy became a major figure in the Boston area as a leading philanthropist.

I'm sure I speak for all the Columbia football family when I extend our deepest condolences to Bobby's family.

Columbia-Yale Keys to the Game

A packed Yale Bowl in 1983

Tomorrow's game features a Yale team picked by half the pundits to win the Ivy title versus a Columbia squad just about everyone chose for last.

But the team on an emotional high right now is Columbia, while Yale is still searching for answers after two straight losses and serious dry spell for their offense.

I expect the Lions to come into the Yale Bowl as fired up as they can be, while Yale will either be equally fired up and hungry to get back on track or just flat and dejected.

Either way, this game provides a unique opportunity for Columbia to keep the Elis down in front of a Yale crowd that may spend as much time jeering their head coach as rooting for their own team.

1) Don't Beat Yourselves

A quick look at Yale's three wins this season reveals a myriad of Eli defensive touchdowns and short-field drives after takeaways. Without the agressive defense, Yale would be 1-5. But it's not just the Eli aggression, it's the other teams' bonehead mistakes and snafus that are gift wrapping points for Yale game after game. Dartmouth was especially guilty of this.

For a team like Columbia, who has fumbled the ball eight times in the last two weeks and comitted seven turnovers in that period, this has to be a big concern. But if the Lions can overcome this problem, it would shut down a crucial part of the Yale attack and put more pressure on its questionable offensive unit to get the job done on its own. If Shane Kelly starts and plays most of the game, he needs to hold on to the ball better and avoid hanging up his passes. If M.A. Olawale plays most of the game, he needs to make sure he continues to protect the ball when he runs and throw safe passes like he did against the Big Green.

2) Be the Better Offensive Line

There are tons of questions about the Yale offensive line right now as the Elis are giving up clusters of sacks and Mike McLeod has been swamped in the backfield time after time. Add in the fact that both Yale QB's are new starters, and you have a potential perfect storm for the Bulldogs.

For Columbia, the offensive line continues to get better. Straight-ahead runs are producing more yardage, sacks are almost non-existent, and when Olawale and Kelly have chosen to run, the blocking has been there. Yale's aggressive defense will test Columbia's front five just as much the Lions will test the Eli O-line, and the team that does the best at pass and run blocking will probably win.

3) Score First

If Yale comes in dejected, then an early score could bring them to the brink of giving up. If Yale comes in pumped, then an early Lions score deflates them and puts some questions in their head. Also, Yale hasn't done all that well this year when playing from behind.

4) Get Some Interceptions

Columbia went three straight weeks without grabbing an INT before getting two against Dartmouth. Interceptions are usually a by-product of good pressure on the QB and the Lions need to make sure they do that. Andy Shalbrack almost made 4 picks last week and had to settle for the game-icing INT only. He and the other Lions need to make sure they take advantage of every errant throw that comes their way. Both Ryan Fodor and Brook Hart have thrown just one interception each this season, and it would take Yale out of their rhythm big-time if they suddenly got picked off in this game. Fumble recoveries are great, but INT's seem to fire up this Columbia team much more this season.

5) Get Mad and Stay Mad

Despite finally getting over the hump against Dartmouth, the Lions did let down a bit after each of their scores. That seems to again reveal a potential lack of "killer instinct" they need to keep winning. Columbia needs to not only think about how great it would be celebrate again after a win at Yale, but also focus on getting some payback for two straight tough losses to a school that does not consider the Lions a serious threat even now.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

It Must be Nice...

Should Jack go?

It must be nice to be just two seasons removed from an Ivy championship and just a year removed from a damn impressive 9-1 season... and still feel so strongly that your school deserves better in a head coach that you can publish an editorial calling for his ouster!

The editorial makes some good points, but the premise that Yale recruits the "best" athletes at just about every position is a little questionable.

The piece also ignores some relatively recent history. When Jack Siedlecki took over, Yale was at the bottom of the Ivy football ladder. The Elis had suffered through five straight non-winning seasons coming into Siedlecki's first season in 1997. They had lost three straight to Columbia, five out of six to Princeton, and two straight heartbreakers to Harvard. Even Handsome Dan was having accidents on the clubhouse carpet.

Since then Yale has had some struggles, especially against Harvard, (Siedlecki is 4-7 against the Crimson, but once suffered through a very rough five-year losing streak to Harvard), has won two titles and hasn't even come close to revisiting the Ivy cellar since Siedlecki's first season when they went 0-7 in the league.

The biggest beef with Siedlecki in Eli-Land is the fact that Yale has blown a number of second half leads in crucial games in recent years. As gut-wrenching as that can be, I know that every Columbia fan would take a few losses in return for a long strong of winning seasons.

And you have to admire what Siedlecki has done by working to the strengths of the team to win. After years of using a rush-oriented attack with running QB's, he modified the team nicely when QB Jeff Mroz came on the scene and got him the receivers he needed to break some school passing records.

Then, Siedlecki adjusted quickly again when Mike McLeod proved to be a super runner and restructured the team into a ball-control squad.

The kinks have come into the picture with injuries, (McLeod is clearly not 100% and surely wasn't by the end of last season), and the increasing difficulty for every Ivy team to recruit good linemen. Not that it was ever easy, but getting big and fast offensive and defensive linemen is harder than ever before in the Ivies.

I'm not an apologist for Jack Siedlecki by any means. I too thought the 2006 loss at the Yale Bowl for Columbia was just ugly with borderline unsportsmanlike conduct from Siedlecki and McLeod to go along with some very bad calls by the refs. But I really don't think he should be fired right now. Forcing him to hire a new offensive coordinator seems like a better move.

Recent Bowl History

Columbia's history at the Bowl in the Siedlecki era has mostly been a tale of blowout losses. Jack is 5-0 against the Lions at home, (9-2 overall), but two of those wins are a bit tainted. The 2004 game ended with Columbia losing 21-14 after the refs didn't call what looked like a clear case of pass interference on tight end Wade Fletcher on an end zone pass from QB Jeff Otis.

The 2006 game has been hashed and rehashed on this blog many times. The very questionable pass interference call on JoJo Smith that set up Yale's first TD and took the momentum away from Columbia. Craig Hormann's worst decision of an otherwise error-free season to throw a pass right at Bobby Abare that he returned for a TD when Columbia looked like it was on the way to taking the lead. Siedlecki's decision to call a timeout the ball and a 14-3 lead with just seconds to go so the Eli's could put up one more score. It was just a rough, rough day for the Lions and their fans.

Some degree of revenge seemed within reach for the Lions last year as Columbia battled to a 0-0 halftime tie against the Elis at Wien Stadium before finally wilting in the third quarter.

But this Saturday's can't be about revenge when most of the players on this squad weren't even around in 2006 to remember that game. The game should be about beating a quality opponent on the road, something Columbia almost did against Penn two weeks ago and has every chance of doing this time around.

Yale Bowl Viewing Tips

There a couple of things you should know if this is your first time going to the Yale Bowl.

1) By all means, sit on the Columbia side of the field and cheer the Lions on. But remember that will put the sun in your eyes by the second half and you will need sunglasses and a hat.

2) The bathrooms are actually outside the stadium, so bank yourselves some time for potty trips.

3) The tailgating venue is the nicest and most expansive in the Ivies, with room to spread out and even get a pickup touch football game going. It's not too late to plan a little something for Saturday for you and your family and friends. (I will help you eat whatever you bring).

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

It's Still all about Mike?

Mike McLeod hasn't done too many flips lately

Jim Fuller at the Yale Portal 31 Blog is trying to put the best face on Mike McLeod's surprisingly ineffective season by mentioning that McLeod still broke the Ivy League's all-time carries record Saturday. Of course, that's a 4-year total and the Ivies have only allowed Freshmen to play since 1993. But it's still a testament to how much the Elis have relied on McLeod and despite his reduced production this year, it certainly serves as a hint that Yale won't exactly be looking for radically different strategies this Saturday.

This Bulldog team has been built around McLeod, or at least that was the plan. In reality, Yale's offensive line hasn't stepped up this season and neither the QB's (Ryan Fodor and Brook Hart) nor the Eli receiving corps have provided enough of a consistent alternative weapon.

Actually, in a reversal of Vince Lombardi's famous saying, Yale's best offense has been it's defense. The Elis best offensive performance in Ivy play came against Dartmouth thanks to a bevy of Big Green mistakes forced by the defense.

For a Columbia team that's been error-prone lately, that's the biggest challenge. Opportunistic Yale defenders like Bobby Abare and company are going to try to overcome the Bulldogs offensive problems by picking off passes and forcing fumbles. This could be an argument to start M.A. Olawale and simply let him run very basic QB draws and straight ahead rushes until the Lions offense settles in, gets relaxed and avoids the kind of pressing that leads to mistakes and turnovers.

But in the end, there still has to be a focus on McLeod. As good as the 95 rushing yards allowed to Dartmouth looks, that stat is skewed a bit by the three Lion sacks and some of the fumbles the Big Green just fell on that were deducted from the rushing totals. A number of Dartmouth options and QB draws gained enough yards to cause some concern. But luckily, neither Yale QB has run the ball much this year, and McLeod is not an option runner. Since the Lafayette game, and the emergence of nose tackle Owen Fraser absolutely plugging up the middle and drawing numerous double teams, the Lions seem to have that kind of straight ahead running well covered. My guess is that Yale Head Coach Jack Siedlecki will still try to test Columbia in that way, and I think that scenario will be one key to the game.


Will this Saturday be another rough weather game? The current forecast definitely says "no." The weather guys are calling for partly cloudy skies and 59 degrees in New Haven. I'm still bringing my winter ski jacket though because the Yale Bowl pressbox is open air and I learned my lesson the hard way about those open air deals at Penn. I had a hat and a heavy leather jacket at Franklin Field, but being shaded from the sun and getting nailed by the wind did me in. I was shuffling back and forth for most of that game to keep relatively warm.

Meanwhile, practice yesterday for everyone in the Ivies must have been interesting. The rain turned to snow in some parts of the Northeast and the wind was fierce again.

Official "8" Release

Erik Anjou made this announcement when I interviewed him at halftime during the Penn game, but now NESN has come out with a media release explaining that his great film, Eight: Ivy League Football and America, will debut this Saturday on NESN right after the Harvard-Dartmouth game, at about 4pm.


Eight: Ivy League Football and America is Scheduled for Saturday, November 1st at 4:00 PM

BOSTON – NESN, New England’s most watched sports network, will air the television premiere of Eight: Ivy League Football and America on Saturday, November 1, 2008 at 4:00 PM, immediately following the network’s live coverage of the Harvard at Dartmouth football game, which begins at 12:30 PM. The 90-minute documentary explores the unique role that Ivy League schools played in developing American football and looks at the many ways that football’s development in the Ivy League mirrored American culture.

“We are happy that we can expand our coverage of New England college football to include this impressive documentary about Ivy League Football on NESN,” said Joel Feld, NESN’s executive vice president of programming and executive producer. “The Ivy League has so much history both in this region and on NESN and we believe our fans will enjoy hearing this story.”

Eight is narrated by two-time Tony Award winning actor Brian Dennehy (Columbia ’60) and features interviews with Academy Award-winning actor Tommy Lee Jones (Harvard ’69), Penn State Coach Joe Paterno (Brown ’50), ESPN anchor Chris Berman (Brown ’77), General Electric CEO Jeff Immelt (Dartmouth ’78), former Secretary of State George Shultz (Princeton ’42), College and Pro Football Hall of Famer Chuck Bednarik (Penn ‘49), four-time Pro Bowl running back Calvin Hill (Yale ’69), Chicago Bears standout lineman Dan Jiggetts (Harvard ’76), Heisman Trophy winner Dick Kazmaier (Princeton ’52), actor and Heisman Trophy runner-up Ed Marinaro (Cornell ’72), Intuit Chairman Bill Campbell (Columbia ‘62), and many others.

The film is directed by Erik Greenberg Anjou (A Cantor’s Tale: Ergo Media and the cool surface: Columbia TriStar) and produced by Mr. Anjou and Mark F. Bernstein (author of Football: The Ivy League Origins of an American Obsession: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001). It was edited by Karlyn Michelson (Anti-Semitism in the 21st Century: The Resurgence and A Cantor’s Tale) and features an original score by Grammy-nominated guitarist Gary Lucas (Gods and Monsters).

About NESN
NESN is owned by the Boston Red Sox and Boston Bruins and delivered to over 4 million homes throughout the six-state New England region and nationally via DirecTV and Dish Network. The definitive source for New England sports programming, NESN is the top rated regional sports network in the country delivering award winning Red Sox and Bruins coverage, a popular sports news and highlights program NESN SportsDesk and a unique sports debate and discussion show The Globe 10.0. NESN is also the first regional sports network in the country to originate every game and studio show in high definition.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

QB Questions on the Quinnipiac?

Ryan Fodor is listed as the starter at QB for Yale this Saturday

Yes, I'm playing a little game with the letter "Q", but that's because Columbia isn't the only school with QB questions this week.

Yale starter Ryan Fodor was out with a shoulder injury last week against Penn, and he is listed as the probable starter over sophomore Brook Hart in the Yale game notes released today. But shoulder injuries for QB's are pretty tricky, and you have to think that if Fodor was anywhere near able to play last week against Penn he would have. The overall point being that Fodor must have been pretty banged up last week and seven more days of rest and treatment may not be enough.

Fodor put up some strong numbers in the season opener versus Georgetown, but Georgetown remains a major statistical punching bag this season and any games against the Hoyas are basically misleading.

However, neither Fodor nor Hart have been entirely impressive and the entire Yale offense is stuck in the wrong gear. A big reason is that star running back and defending Ivy Player of the Year Mike McLeod clearly isn't 100% healthy. A bigger reason is it appears the Eli offensive line is dramatically weaker this season than it was in '05, '06 or '07. Watching my DVR'd version of the Yale-Penn game yesterday, all I saw was the Penn defensive line and linebackers getting into the Bulldog backfield at will. Yale's defense was impressive as well, but not as menacing and dominant. The left side of the Eli O-line is especially questionable.

The numbers don't lie. Yale is averaging a shockingly low 79 yards rushing per game this season after getting 265 rushing yards per game last season. That's a 70.1% decline!

The depletion among the down linemen is all about graduation, and tight end Langston Johnson is another graduation casualty. Johnson was a two-time All-Ivy honoree who maybe caught 6 passes in his entire career. He was just a great pulling end who often allowed McLeod to turn the corner or simply kept blitzing defenders from coming around the end of the Yale offense.

With Columbia's rising effectiveness on defense, particularly in the pass rush, the Elis should have their hands full with the likes of Lou Miller, Owen Fraser, and Phil Mitchell.

Who Columbia starts or uses primarily at QB is much more of a story right now, because M.A. Olawale and Shane Kelly are much more different from each other than Hart and Fodor are.

Miller on Top

Speaking of Lou Miller, he now leads the Ivy League in sacks (5) and tackles for a loss (11). Yale's Joe Hathaway and Kyle Hawari are tied for second with four sacks, so the top three sack leaders will be on the field Saturday. Lou's older brother played for Yale and graduated after the 2006 season, so I wonder if there will be any extra motivation for him Saturday. (Clark Koury's brother Jake is currently a backup on the O-line for the Elis).

Drew Quinn and Alex Gross are still #1 and #2 respectively atop the Ivy tackling leaders list. Yale's "Mr. Everything" Bobby Abare is fourth on the list, so three of the top 4 tacklers in the Ivies will be on the field Saturday at the Bowl.

Yale's unique defensive strength is picking off passes. They have three players with three interceptions each and another with 2 INT's. Against Penn, there seemed to be a Yale player coming close to picking off almost every pass. This has to be a concern for Columbia.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Elephant in the Room?

Ladies and gentlemen: Your Ivy League Offensive Player of the Week (CREDIT: Columbia Spectator)

As much as I want to keep celebrating Columbia's first win in more than 13 months, it's hard not to ask the big question after the 21-13 win over Dartmouth. That question is: Who does Columbia start at QB this Saturday at Yale?

There's no doubt Ivy League Offensive Player of the Week Millie Olawale's entrance into the game against the Big Green helped grab the momentum back and win the contest for the Lions. But there's also little doubt that Shane Kelly had fine first half running and throwing the ball too.

Of course, it doesn't have to be either or. Kelly and Olawale could split time at QB, and some readers have even written to me about how they'd like to see both Kelly and Olawale in the backfield at the same time, and let the defense try to figure out who's taking the snap, etc.

Having two good QB's at once is a good problem to have. But a bad problem for the Lions this coming weekend is the Yale defense. The Elis are playing stingy this season and consistently so. Considering the way both Columbia's and Yale's defenses are playing this season, 20 points looks like it will be more than enough to win this game. It's getting the 20 points that will be the hard part.

Unsung Heroes

But getting back to celebrating, I want to mention a few unsung heroes from Saturday's win:

Corey Cameron

To a lot of Columbia fans, Cameron is "the other linebacker," often overlooked by folks focusing on team leader Drew Quinn and last year's Ivy League Rookie of the Year Alex Gross. Cameron wasn't even the man expected to start this season at that third linebacker slot. But the senior had another solid game versus Dartmouth and leveled some Green ball carriers with a few huge hits.

Ralph DeBernardo

On almost all of those great runs by Olawale, the senior right tackle DeBernardo was in the thick of it. The whole right side of the Lions much improved offensive line has been more than solid this season.

Mike Stephens

Mike made two very tough catches in the fourth quarter. The first set up a TD. The second gave the Lions a crucial first down deep in their own end late in the fourth quarter.

Andrew Kennedy

Made 2 catches, one for 21 yards even though he was totally covered on the play. The sophomore tight end is having a breakthrough season and figures to play an even bigger role if Olawale gets more reps.

Nathan Lenz

The fullback provided another great safety valve, catching three passes for 17 yards.

Viewing Party

Please try to make the short trip to New Haven to see the Columbia game at Yale this Saturday. But if you can't make it, season ticket holders are invited to the following event:

A special viewing party has been set up for this week’s Columbia football game, televised live on the YES Network, with kickoff at 12:30 pm. Join us at the Village Pourhouse on Amsterdam Avenue and West 109th Street at 12:00 noon and watch the game with other Columbia fans. There will be a full appetizer buffet and unlimited Bud Light and draft beer during the game for only $25 per person. Plus, during the game, we’ll have some fun raffle-type giveaways. Reservations are required-please call Barry Neuberger at 212-854-7031 or e-mail to reserve your seats. Let’s see if we can make it back-to-back wins this week! We look forward to seeing you on Saturday.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

On With The Wind

Lou Miller harassed the Green offense all game (CREDIT: Columbia Athletics/Gene Boyers)

Columbia 21 Dartmouth 13

Why Columbia Won

Most importantly, the Lions truly controlled the line of scrimmage on offense and defense, but Columbia also overcame whatever mental blocks had been stopping them from grabbing victories after so many close defeats. The defense was dominant, and was a bad ref's call away from holding the Big Green to without a touchdown. And the coaching staff also made some brilliant moves, not only inserting M.A. Olawale late in the third quarter, but also calling the right plays for him to take advantage of his excellent running talent and improving passing skills.

Why Dartmouth Lost

The Big Green's weak offensive and defensive lines just couldn't get the job done. Columbia had only three official sacks, but Lou Miller and his teammates harassed and knocked down both Dartmouth QB's all game. And when the Lions offense sputtered in the third quarter with turnovers, the Big Green could only get two field goals out of excellent field position.

Olawale's entrance was just the right call at the right time (CREDIT: Columbia Athletics/Gene Boyers)

Key Turning Points

1) After an Adam Mehrer interception, the Dartmouth bench committed a personal foul penalty after Mehrer slid to their sideline. That gave the Lions the ball at the 50 with the strong wind in their face. Columbia then began an efficient time-consuming drive, highlighted by a number of short Shane Kelly runs and passes. The drive was so well managed that the quarter ended just as the Lions were knocking on the door. That allowed Ray Rangel to score the TD on the first play of the second quarter and more importantly, allowed Jon Rocholl to hit the PAT with the wind at his back.

2) After Dartmouth scored the tying TD, (thanks to a clear fumble that was ruled an incomplete pass), in the second quarter, Columbia immediately fumbled the ball back to the Big Green at the CU 35. Instead of surrendering the lead and giving up a huge chunk of momentum, the Lions defense forced a three-and-out, (while Dartmouth committed another personal foul penalty), and got the ball right back on the ensuing punt. Then Columbia went on a 10-play TD drive, getting the lead and the momentum solidly back before the half.

3) With the score 14-10 late in the third quarter, Kelly simply let the ball fall out of his hands and Dartmouth recovered at the Lions 14. But instead of taking the lead, the Big Green actually lost a yard on three plays and had to settle for a short field goal.

4) After that field goal, Columbia put Olawale into the game and he made an immediate impact. On 3rd and 4 from the Lions 25, he broke off an 18-yard run and Dartmouth couldn't stop him after that. Six plays later, Olawale strolled easily into the end zone for the final score of the game.

It's hard to say too much about the play of Lou Miller. Miller basically lived in the Green backfield, finishing with two and a half sacks, three and a half tackles for a loss and seven tackles overall. He was robbed of 2-3 more sacks when he appeared to have Dartmouth QB's in the grasp. Miller's play, along with standout freshman nose tackle Owen Fraser and the continued menacing presence of Phillip Mitchell, is giving Columbia it's first dominant defensive line since the days of Marcellus Wiley. Ivy teams with dominant DL's win games... lots of them.

For the second straight week, Columbia held an opponent under 100 yards net rushing. You'd have to go back many, many years to find the last time the Lions did that. And this week, they also held the opponent to under 100 yards passing. Yes the weather was a big factor, but Columbia still managed about 400 yards of total offense, so Dartmouth doesn't have as much of an excuse.

Shane Kelly went flat in the third quarter, but he had an excellent first half running and throwing the ball. The Lions coaches may want to come up with new schemes to utilize Kelly and Olawale perhaps more evenly in games like they did yesterday. When both of them are hot, opposing defenses really don't have a chance.

The wind pretty much guaranteed that Austin Knowlin wasn't going to have a huge day catching the ball. But he made a couple of key plays, and was more open than I've ever seen him on his TD reception.

Ray Rangel is starting to find his role. Inside the five, his cut back ability is hard to stop and it led to the first Columbia TD yesterday. He's also finally starting to click on screen passes, as he had two big gainers off screens. If Rangel can run for 50-70 yards each week along with 50-70 yards receiving, he will be lethal. Having to stop running QB's who can also pass downfield like Olawale and Kelly is one thing, but throw in Rangel and Knowlin as screen pass threats and it's almost impossible to do anything about it.

Jordan Davis had two of the best runs of his career on the Lions second scoring drive. If he continues to recover from the injury that basically kept him out of the previous two games, he will also be a key weapon down the stretch.

Mike Stephens had another fine game, as two of his four catches were shoe-string grabs. The biggest one came in the fourth quarter as he went horizontal to grab a low pass from Olawale at the Dartmouth 10.

Jon Rocholl had a field goal attempt totally pushed no good by the wind, but he won't forget last night's game because of two booming kick offs with the wind. One sailed completely out of the end zone and probably made its first bounce somewhere in Washington Heights. The second actually hit the right upright in the South end zone!

The wind was as treacherous as I've ever seen it at the Baker Athletic Complex, and that is saying something. At certain points of the game, I was actually worried that the north goal posts might tip over, and white caps were visible on the water a number of times during the evening. Kudos go to the fans who showed up and stayed in the game the entire time.

One of those fans was my daughter Jordan, who helped bring the Lions luck as the honorary ball kid of the game! Sign your kid up to the Lions Cubs Club and they can get the same honor at a football or basketball game to come!

Friday, October 24, 2008

Week 6 Picks

Last Week: 3-2

Overall 19-8

I was thrown off by Brown's resurgence last week and Fordham's standout defensive performance. This week things get tougher to call:

Harvard over Princeton

Princeton's fine QB Brian Anderson is either out or not 100%. That's a scenario the suprisingly thin-benched Tigers can't afford. Harvard needs to work on finishing games better. This will be closer than some expect, but the Crimson roll on.

Brown over Cornell

This one is on Head Coach Phil Estes if Brown loses. The Bears seem to match up extremely well against Cornell's pass defense and short-pass-heavy offense. Plus the game is at Brown.

Yale over Penn

This is a toughie. The Quakers get Mike DiMaggio and Tyson Maugle back, but have to face an Eli team at the Yale Bowl and in tough weather conditions. But neither team really impresses me that much and I have to think they're both setting themselves up for big beatings versus Harvard down the road.

Dartmouth-Columbia Keys to the Game

A triple threat versus Dartmouth tomorrow

Only four keys this week, because my portfolio is down 20% today.

But MOST IMPORTANTLY, everyone should be aware that my five-year-old daughter Jordan will be the official "Ball Kid" for the game and will be acknowledged on the field in the first quarter. This is sure to help the team win! Her little sister Yael and I are counting on it!

1) Score Some Points

Columbia's offense has been looking sloppy lately and 13 total points the last two weeks tells the story. Nothing good is going to happen until the Lions put some more points on the board. Jordan Davis' expected return to 100% health is a good omen. The Lions offense clearly started to sputter with his exit from the regular lineup.

Shane Kelly's execellent performances in the first three games are a memory now after two straight gloomier showings. Obviously, as the QB, he needs to get back on track for anything to really work for the Lions offense.

2) Own the Middle

A key matchup in tomorrow's game will feature two freshmen who have exceeded expectations and even conventional wisdom this season.

Columbia's outstanding nose tackle Owen Fraser will face off against Dartmouth's surprisingly good freshman center Austen Fletcher. I say surprising because freshmen almost never get any playing time on the OL, let alone start. And starting as a frosh as the center is even rarer.

Fletcher is good, and the Big Green is really happy with his development. How happy? I suggest signing up for Bruce Wood's Big Green Alert site to find out.

But I think Fraser has the advantage here. He and Fletcher are basically the same weight, and Fraser is definitely faster. On a wet day when you expect more running plays into the middle, I like Fraser's chances to make a big impact again.

On offense, Columbia's center Evan Sanford has been having a great season and he is matched up against a 5-10 freshman nose guard in Ryan Egeolu. This is a matchup Sanford should and must win.

I don't think heavy rain will mean a bunch of runs right up the middle all day. But the wet weather will mean the exchanges from center will be tricky for both teams. If Sanford can control the Lions snaps while Fraser pressures Dartmouth on theirs... Columbia can come out ahead.

3) Be Ready for Anything and Bounce Back from Setbacks

Dartmouth will pull out lots of tricks and some of them are bound to work. The Lions can't let that happen too often, but need to be ready for option passes, reverses, fake kicks and punts, etc. And when one of those things happens and results in a big gainer or a score, Columbia can't let it get to them. Come right back and answer.

4) Get Over the Mental Hump

Columbia has outplayed their opponents a few times already this season. Some of what's holding back this team has to be mental. The team has to believe it will win and act accordingly. When the Lions get a lead, they can't act like it's a miracle. And the team needs to grab the momemtum and keep it.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Scouting Dartmouth

The talented Milan Williams hasn't had the blocking this year (CREDIT: Dartmouth Sports/Mark Washburn)

Lots of Ivy watchers are talking about how Columbia's 0-5 record is deceiving, and because every loss has been so close it's hard to get a real handle on the Lions.

But I would say getting a handle on Dartmouth is actually harder to do. Because even though most of the Big Green's losses have been by realtively large margins, the level of competition has been so high it's confusing when you try to pick out what this team's strengths and weaknesses truly are.

One number that jumps out at you is rushing defense, where Dartmouth is yielding a big 203 yards per game. But that's misleading, because the Big Green has faced a number of top-notch rushing attacks, including Yale, (with Mike McLeod having his best game of the season so far), Colgate, (with superstar runner Jordan Scott), and Penn, (with a healthy Mike DiMaggio who was out against Columbia). By contrast, the Lions have faced really only two teams with dangerous runners, Fordham and Princeton, and they had mixed results by giving up too much yardage to the Rams' Xavier Martin while shutting down the Tigers' Jordan Culbreath. Towson's relatively weak running attack was surprisingly potent against Columbia in week 2, while Lafayette's great rusher Maurice White went out with an injury early in the game at Wien Stadium.

Dartmouth is also giving up a hefty 255 yards passing per game, but that number is skewed by the fact that the Big Green have already had to face two excellent passing attacks in UNH and Holy Cross. Strip out those two games and the average passing yards allowed is a much more decent 208 yards per contest.

So I don't think the Dartmouth defense is as weak as the stats would indicate. But because the Big Green did give up a hefty 286 passing yards to Penn and it surrendered the most yards this season on the ground to Mike McLeod, I'm also not convinced it's the kind of unit that will shut down the Lions offense anywhere near as well as Lafayette and Penn have the last two weeks. If Columbia's "O" is able to get the kinks out and play more like it did in the first three weeks of the season, there's a chance for a big day here.

Offensively, the number that jumps out at you is Dartmouth's paltry 57 yards per game rushing. That stat is not as deceiving as the Big Green came into 2008 with a young offensive line and a spate of injuries up front has made things even worse. But mitigating that stat somewhat is the fact that Dartmouth has faced some tough run defenses in Penn, (although Columbia had little trouble running against the Quakers in the first half), and Yale, (which is playing very well on defense overall this season). Strip out those two games and the Big Green is averaging a more decent, but still awful, 81 yards per game on the ground.

But that's a little deceiving too. He isn't getting great blocking, but Milan Williams is still one of the best runners in the Ivies, and he only needs one or two good plays to hurt you. If he's healthy, you can't sleep on the Dartmouth running game.

Speaking of deceiving, Buddy Teevens has his offense spreading out the ball and using lots of trickery in the passing game. Quarterback Alex Jenny is doing a decent job as the starter, but the real good news in Hanover is that last year's starting QB is tearing it up as a wide receiver this year. Tim McManus has 28 receptions for 309 yards and three TD's even though he still takes a few snaps from center now and then. He can also go in motion and suddenly turn up in the backfield ready to take a snap. I don't envy the guys in the Columbia secondary who will have to cover him.

On the negative side, Jenny hasn't been able to get much going with his veteran receivers Phillip Galligan and Eric Paul, who is back after losing 2007 to injury. He has dumped off a number of passes to Williams coming out of the backfield, and that's potentially dangerous, but I'm sure Teevens wishes he had more deep threats.

The gutted offensive line has also allowed more sacks that they'd like to see with 12 opponent sacks so far this season. Columbia's defense seems to be doing a better job of getting to the QB lately, and that could be a key to the game.

Ike says: "Don't gripe about the rain, get in there and fight!"

Meanwhile, the weather forecast for Saturday is getting worse by the hour. Rain and wind could be a factor, and it was in the heavy rain at Towson that Columbia had its worst game against the run, (considering the relative competition), this season. I would say the bad weather might kill whatever advantages the Lions might have, but after getting through the monsoon at Towson I think this team is ready for anything.

Again the real "X" factor is Teevens, from whom I expect the unexpected. The defense and special teams need to be especially prepared for everything including the kitchen sink.

For those of you who are thinking this game is a dud because both teams are 0-5, think again. After being dominated for decades by the Big Green, Columbia finally started a winning streak against Dartmouth in 1998. Lately, things have broken the other way, and the Lions still have oodles of history to make up. I don't care if the Big Green come into Wien Stadium with a team recruited from the local Girl Scout troop, there is a lot of painful history to make up Saturday.

And I also don't care if it's raining. Show up to the game and make sure you wave at the Versus cameras!

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

I Screwed Up

I need a new adding machine

A few weeks back, I wrote that this week's game against Dartmouth would be Columbia's 1,000th varsity football game in school history.

I was wrong.

A careful counting of each and every game on our books actually shows that the team had played 998 games coming in to this season. That means our 1,000th game was the week two loss to Towson.


So this will be the 1,004th game in varsity history, our 367th Ivy game since the league was officially formed in 1956, and the 79th meeting with Dartmouth.

Not exactly nice round numbers... but big numbers anyway.

For the record, the first Columbia-Dartmouth game was played in 1899 at Manhattan Field, which stood adjacent to the Polo Grounds. The Lions won that game 22-0. William McKinley was president, and shares of Lehman Brothers traded at 15 cents a share... a 900% premium over today's Lehman share price.

Dartmouth actually played a number of games at the Polo Grounds over the years in the days when travel to Hanover was much tougher than it is now, (it's still not easy).

A Few Odds and Ends

From Ivy Coaching Longshot to the NFL in just Six Years

Chicago Bears all-time great Mike Singletary, who openly said he was interested in the Columbia head coaching job back in 2002, is now the head coach of the NFL's San Francisco 49ers. What a difference 6 years makes!

For the record, I don't think Singletary was ever seriously considered. I'm pretty sure all his actual coaching experience at the time was at the high school level.

Singletary's interest in Columbia came at about the same time that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was interviewing for the head basketball coaching job. Now that would have been something if they both had been coaching at CU at the same time! I imagine the reporters at the Daily News and the New York Post would have had to start finding Columbia on the map.

Larkin takes his World Series-winning swing

World Series Begins Tonight

Fernando Perez '04 will become the first Columbia grad to participate in a World Series since Gene Larkin had the series-winning hit for the Minnesota Twins in 1991. Perez was a September call-up for Tampa and he's mostly been used for his blazing speed. In the postseason, he's been in four games and scored two runs, including a game-winner in the ALCS. Look for him to get more playing time in the games in Philadelphia, where the Rays won't be able to use the DH and will presumably need more pinch hitters for pitchers.

In 1991, I was a senior at Columbia and for some reason my buddies and I were mostly pulling for the Braves. We all knew Larkin was a Columbia grad who had ripped up the baseball record book in his time as a Lion, but he was not a starter and we didn't figure he would play a big roll. But in game 7, when Jack Morris was pitching the game of the century, we started to move from pro-Atlanta to neutral relatively quickly, (none of us were actually fans of either team). And when Larkin came up in extra innings with a chance to win it with a long hit over the drawn-in outfield, we all became Twins fans in a big hurry. Larkin won it by doing exactly what he was supposed to do: get under the ball a little and drive it somewhere. Larkin's walk-off hit has been overshadowed by Joe Carter's homer in the '93 series, but at the time, I believe it was the first World Series winning hit since Bill Mazerowski's walk-off series winning homer in 1960.

Bring Out Your Toys!!!

Please bring some unwrapped or unused toys to the game this Saturday for the annual Toys for Tots collection organized by Columbia football and Father Valenti. All proceeds from the event will go to the St. Francis Youth Center in the South Bronx. You can also donate cash.

The collection table will be just next to the stadium.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Season Ticket Invite!!

Football season ticket holders have another great reason to show up early to the game this Saturday. Below are the details of a special event just for you:

Thank you for your continued support of Columbia Football. Please join us in the Athletics Director’s Tent on Saturday, October 25th, prior to the Lions contest with Dartmouth at 4:00 PM. Complimentary hot dogs, burgers and soft drinks will be served from 2:30-3:30 PM. The Director’s Tent is located in the southwest corner of Parking Lot B, just outside the stadium. We look forward to seeing you on Saturday.

Be there!

Versus Misstep?... Not!

Versus' money will probably be very well spent this week

Every game Columbia has played this year has pretty much gone down to the wire. There have been super highlights, bonehead mistakes, and some weird stuff happening in each contest for both the Lions and their opponents. Each game has been exciting.

The same is true for each and every one of Columbia's games against Dartmouth since 1997. The one blowout in that 11-game stretch was the Lions 49-21 win over the Big Green on Homecoming in 2000... but that win featured Johnathan Reese's single-game record rushing performance and enough big play highlights to keep both teams' fans in their seats until the game ended.

Last year's game in Hanover was a real barn burner that wasn't over until the final seconds.

Other memorable games in that stretch are a 1-point victory by Dartmouth at Wien Stadium in 2002, a mistake-prone but still exciting 9-6 win by Columbia in 2004 when both teams were 0-5 as they are now, and the Lions 1998 win over Dartmouth which was Columbia's first win in Hanover since 1946 and first win against Dartmouth anywhere since 1971.

The point is, the Columbia-Dartmouth series has been as competitive and exciting as Ivy rivalries get over the past decade and change. Don't tell that to die-hard Big Green fans who are probably ashamed that their once-dominant team has "fallen: to our level. But the folks at VERSUS shouldn't be ashamed because this will probably be another close game filled with enough highlights to keep viewers glued to their sets.

Overall, I'm not as surprised by Dartmouth's 0-5 record as Columbia's, considering the brutal schedule the Big Green face year after year during the first half of the season. But I am very surprised to see that Head Coach Buddy Teevens and company haven't been able to open things up more for their talented running back Milan Williams. I realize the already-inexperienced offensive line has been banged up, but Williams may be the second best rusher in the Ivies and it's a shame to see his talents wasted. Because of O-line problems and because they've fallen behind early in a number of games, Dartmouth is throwing the ball a lot and finding some a new receiving star in QB-turned WR Tim McManus. Throwing the ball early and often and abandoning the running game may not be the recipe for getting wins in this league, (Columbia tried it a lot in recent years with limited success), but it is a recipe for exciting games.

Another fun aspect of Dartmouth game week is the fact that fans get to enjoy a lot more information about the contest thanks to the extensive and fun coverage of Dartmouth football on Bruce Wood's Big Green Alert and Big Green Alert Blog. The blog in particular is really must-reading for all Ivy sports fans all year round.

I'd love to see a blowout for the Lions over Dartmouth as much as anyone on the planet, but if you're paying attention to this season and the last 11 before them, you have to predict yet another pulse-raising contest here.

Bring your defibrillators and buy your tickets now!

What Will Buddy Do?

Put a piece of chalk in this man's hands and he's dangerous! (CREDIT: Dartmouth Sports)

It's only Monday, but Lion supporters don't have a minute to waste as we try to anticipate what Dartmouth Head Coach Buddy Teevens is concocting to help his Big Green get an edge over Columbia this Saturday.

You see, Buddy T. has never lost to Columbia in any of the eight times he's faced the Lions in his two tenures as head coach in Hanover. That alone would be disturbing enough, but the fact is that by my count, most of those wins were the direct result of Teevens excellent gameday coaching featuring some tricky strategy.

We saw it last year when Teevens pulled out a big play at the end of the first half. With the score tied, and time running down, Teevens called for quick snap and a deceptive running play to the outside of the Lions defense that resulted in a huge gain and set up a big TD. I remember seeing how confused the Lion team was in the seconds before the snap and saying on the air that maybe Columbia should call a time out, but Teevens trap was already set. The final score: Dartmouth 37 Columbia 28.

We saw "Teevens Trickery" several times in the 2006 game. After Columbia fumbled on their first play from scrimmage, the Big Green immediately got aggressive with a trick QB end around run by Mike Fritz that set up a first and goal. It was 7-0 Big Green just a few plays later.

The next bit of trickery ensued in the second quarter, when Teevens called for a fake field goal attempt that was successful and led to a TD a few plays later.

The final score in 2006 was 20-7 Dartmouth, takeaway those two scores, and maybe the Lions win. Incidentally, the Big Green were 0-5 coming into that game as well.

The game in 2005 didn't feature any super strategy that I can remember, but it was a very close game that went down to the final minutes in a 17-6 win for the Big Green. Close wins against similar or better competition make coaches look good no matter what.

In his first tenure, Teevens was almost the victim of bad coaching in 1987 when it appears he and his staff were a little surprised by Columbia's tenaciousness in a game Columbia only lost because of a FG attempt that went just wide at the buzzer.

In 1989, with the Lions leading 12-3 with about two minutes left, the Big Green got a big punt block that led to a TD and quickly got the ball back for the winning FG attempt for a 13-12 gut-wrenching loss at Wien Stadium.

1990 and 1991 were closer games than Teevens and company would have liked considering the Big Green were champions those seasons, but Teevens can't be blamed for close wins.

The point is, Teevens is a master. He may not seem as desperately angry or heated as Penn's Al Bagnoli is on the sidelines during Columbia games, but he clearly burns the midnight oil during Columbia game week diggiing into a special bag of tricks.

I expect the unexpected this Saturday. The Big Green is averaging just 57 yards rushing per game, so you'd expect lots of passing right? Maybe not. Maybe Teevens runs a bunch of draws and QB roll outs in hopes of catching the Lions off guard. Maybe he tricks Columbia with quick pitches or with wide receivers going in motion and coming back into the backfield. Maybe Teevens uses Harry Potters cloak of invisibility and... okay maybe that's going a bit too far.

But just in case, I'll be bringing an extra pair of binoculars and healthy dish of suspicion whenever the Big Green has the ball.

So should you.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Where do We Go from Here?

Columbia can easily still make a move up in the League

A commenter whose post I had to delete for other reasons, made a very good point about how even at 5-5, this Columbia team is not unable to defeat any of its remaining opponents. Harvard at Harvard is a possible super-toughie, but the others have all shown vulnerabilities that Columbia can capitalize on, especially if the defense continues to play as well as it has in the last two games.

Yale is looking a lot weaker than we thought, Cornell is crashing after a great start, Brown is inconsistent, and Dartmouth is 0-5 too.

Nobody is happy with 0-5 or the way we got to this record with so many close losses. But I'm willing to bet that if at the end of last year, after going 0-7 in the Ivies, I told you Columbia would win 2-3 Ivy games in 2008, a lot of you would be pleased. The way I see it, 2-3 Ivy wins are a very strong possibility. And if the team knows they still have our support, then it's an even better possibility.

A Word on Your Comments

Speaking of comments. I believe in free speech among civilized people and rest assured, all of you are civilized and not out of line in my opinion. In the three years I've been maintaining this blog, no one has ever personally attacked me in a comment, (with the exception of spelling or grammatical corrections, which I don't consider attacks and admittedly need from time to time), which is amazing.

But I just can't publish everything some of you are writing because of some misconceptions about the origin of those comments.

I apologize.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Gift Wrapped

Penn's Britton Ertman had a huge day (Credit: Penn Athletics)

Penn 15 Columbia 10

Why Penn Won

They showed up and were in a receiving mood for Columbia's many turnovers and other miscues. The Quakers also made enough defensive adjustments in the second half to seal a win.

Why Columbia Lost

The Lions were in a giving mood. Turning the ball over four times and also giving up a safety on a high punt snap. Columbia gave Penn each and every one of their 15 points. The miscues negated a tremendous performance by the defense, who played their best game of the season.

Key Turning Points

1) After the Lions got a quick first down into Penn territory on the first possession of the game, Shane Kelly hung a pass up that Britton Ertman picked off and returned to the Columbia 30. It was to be the beginning of a long day for Kelly and a big day for Ertman.

2) Late in the first quarter with the score tied at 3-3, Penn fumbled the snap and it was recovered from Lion nose tackle Owen Fraser. But after getting one first down and then moving as close as the Quaker 36, Columbia was forced to punt. The Lions were unable to capitalize on the one Penn turnover of the game, while the Quakers would eventually score off of three of the four Columbia giveaways.

3) With the score still tied at 3-3, Columbia opened te second quarter with two straight fumbles deep in their own end on their first two possessions. The result was 10 points for Penn and 13-3 lead.

The leader on defense yesterday was Alex Gross, who made an incredible 17 tackles and most of them were hard hits. He kept it going the entire game, and even made the final first-down-saving tackle that gave the Lions one last chance in the fourth quarter.

Lou Miller had his best game to date, with 10 tackles, 1.5 sacks and 2.5 overall tackles for a loss.

The Columbia defense held Penn to just 83 net yards rushing. I can't remember the last time the Lions held an opponent to under 100 yards on the ground. The Quakers had just 10 first downs.

Ray Rangel had a tremendous first half, rushing for more than 70 yards and beating Penn up the middle time after time. The Quakers adjusted nicely to stop him in the second half, but he still came up big as he took huge hit after huge hit and never fumbled.

Jon Rocholl had a strong game. Hitting his one field goal attempt, nailing his kickoffs, and getting a rare touchback on the free kick after safety. It was the best game yet for the Lions kick coverage team against a Penn team that had the best kick returners they'd faced yet.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

It's Game Day!

Historic Franklin Field, the first two-tiered stadium in America

If you're not able to come to the game at Franklin Field, (and no Ivy fan should missthe chance to see a game at that historic stadium at least once), make sure to tune in to 970 AM "The Apple" here in the New York area or listen on online.

One matchup I will be watching closely today is freshman Columbia nose tackle Owen Fraser at 278-pound/6"1 going up against Penn's 255-pound/6"2 sophomore center Luis Ruffolo. It's a matchup Fraser must win.

JV Grabs a "W"

Leon Ivery scored the first Lions TD of the game (CREDIT: Columbia Atheltics)

The Columbia athletics Web site has a nice recap of the 16-13 win over football factory Bridgton Academy today at Wien Stadium. There were some nice highlights, especially the 47-yard FG to win the game in OT by Joe Stormont. With Jon Rocholl graduating this May, the Lions need a kicker in waiting and it looks like Stormont could be it.

Let's hope the varsity follows their lead and makes this a winning weekend all around.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Columbia-Penn Keys to the Game

The Lions need to force Robert Irvin to make a mistake

As many of you have probably noticed, the media's attention on our current 12-game losing streak is starting to grow. The latest issue of Sports Illustrated puts the football team in "Not" file for the "Who's Hot and Who's Not" feature, proving once again that the major sports media outlets are basically only interested in poking fun of Ivy teams rather than singling them out when they do well. (However, they also had some kind words for Columbia baseball at least).

We can gripe about how unfair it is, but respect is earned and we have lost 12 straight games fair and square. We can all wait for when the Lions play weaker teams like Dartmouth at home next week, but the record-breaking 44-game losing streak was ended with a win over then league favorite Princeton... so why not a big win tomorrow against heavily favored Penn?

Here's what we'll need to do to win:

1) Use the Deeper Pass to Open up the Run

Penn is super-stingy against the run and the pass, but the Quakers really haven't had to defend the kind of long passes Shane Kelly has thrown to Taylor Joseph and once or twice to Austin Knowlin this season. If star corner Tyson Maugle doesn't play, the Lions have to test that secondary early and often. If Columbia can establish that attack, it should open up some opportunities for running, even up the middle.

2) Use the Option to Loosen up the Defense

Penn faced the option offense last week against Georgetown and did pretty well against it in the early going, allowing the Hoyas running QB just 35 yards on nine carries and forcing him to fumble inside the Quaker 10 yard line. But they did well, they did not dominate and with all due respect, Columbia is not Georgetown. If the option is working as crisply as it was at times against Princeton, the Lions can use it to establish good yards on the ground and open up the passing game.

3) Blitz Robert Irvin a Lot

Even when he was healthy in 2006, Penn QB Robert Irvin often threw costly interceptions, especially on 3rd downs. He has four INT's so far in 2008, and that's not terrible but not good either considering he's not taking all the snaps. The way Lions CB Calvin Otis delivers big hits, I'd like to see him or AJ Maddox blitzing from the outside once in a while. Even if they don't get to Irvin, they may force a mistake.

4) Contain Chris Wynn as Much as Possible

Wynn is a super kick returner and will be the top defensive weapon for the Quakers on the field tomorrow. He needs to be neutralized as much as possible. Good kick coverage is a must and successfully throwing away from him is also probably a good idea. Again, this could mean tight end Andrew Kennedy will need to get more involved underneath while the deep pattern receivers tie up Wynn. As Chuck Noll used to say, the difference between a 5-yard reception and a long TD catch and run is whether the wide receivers are blocking downfield. An underneath throw or two to Zack Kourouma may also work in keepin Wynn away from the passing game.

5) Keep Alex Gross and Corey Cameron Active

It appears the Quaker offense will be keying on Drew Quinn based on Coach Bagnoli's comments earlier this week. Quinn is the game captain this week along with Jon Rocholl, so I still expect another big game from him, (especially since he is the de facto PERMANENT team captain in my opinion anyway), but if he is getting extra attention then Alex Gross and Corey Cameron need to take advantage. Columbia needs to respond well to what I expect to be a lot of rotating tailbacks for the Quakers tomorrow.

And it goes without saying that Phil Mitchell still needs to make more of an impact rushing the passer. He is getting double-teamed a lot and it has to be frustrating, but with the emerging presence of Owen Fraser on the line, something needs to open up for Mitchell soon.

Is this a winnable game? They really all are this year. But a win tomorrow would be extra sweet for a Columbia team that hasn't beaten Penn since 1996.

It won't be easy. I again expect to see a motivated Quaker squad approaching this game as if it were the Super Bowl against a Columbia team that stole its lunch money and insulted its family. Perhaps Coach Bagnoli threatens to make the team clean the bathrooms at Franklin Field for a week or something if they lose to the Lions, but whatever he does to motivate his troops against us year after year, it works.

So, it's a tall order perhaps... but not impossible.

Week 5 Picks

Last Week: 5-0

Overall: 16-6

I got back on track last week after two rough go-rounds in week 2 and 3.

There are some interesting games the slate this week, starting with:

Princeton over Brown

If you measure Columbia's abilities solely by the effort against Princeton, you have to optimistic. Jordan Culbreath, who the Lions basically shut down in week 3, had a monster game last week and almost led the underdog Tigers to a win at Colgate. Now Princeton returns home but without steady kicker Connor Louden, who is out with a groin injury. That could hurt the Tigers in a close contest. I expect a high scoring game, but the difference will come down to Brown's continued lack of a running game.

Harvard over Lehigh

The Crimson seem to be shaking off the early season cobwebs and while Lehigh has improved, Harvard is ready to roll.

Colgate over Cornell

Colgate's super rushing attack will flatten the Big Red. Cornell's loss to Harvard last week revealed some of the weaknesses on this team that the Raiders will surely exploit.

Yale over Fordham

Fordham's defense is not playing as well as expected and that's good news for Mike McLeod.

Holy Cross over Dartmouth

The Crusaders were on a high after beating Brown last week, and then one player was charged with stabbing a teammate. Both the victim and suspect deny there was a stabbing, but that's just weird. Dartmouth is still suffering with injuries suffered on the field, and that makes a win for the Big Green a tall order no matter how mentally battered the Crusaders might be tomorrow.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Scouting Penn

Matt Hamscher will probably carry the load this Saturday (CREDIT: Daily Pennsylvanian)

First off, we have some injury news. Penn Coach Al Bagnoli says top rusher Mike DiMaggio will dress for the game, but will probably not play that much if at all. He was knocked out of the game against Georgetown last week and did not return.

That means freshman Matt Hamscher, who filled in for DiMaggio quite nicely with 102 yards on 21 carries last week, will probably be the go-to guy with help from sophomore tailback Bradford Blackmon, (the guy Columbia recruited, but obviously went to the Quakers). Clearly, they are both talented runners, but I think they are a downgrade from DiMaggio, who many believe was already a downgrade of sorts from Penn's now-graduated rushing star Joe Sandberg. Sandberg torched the Lions for 197 yards on 22 carries last year.

As much as the banged up running corps may help Columbia, this is a Penn team that really relies on its defense. In the preseason, it looked like the Quakers were in trouble on the defensive line due to the graduation of a couple of big-time players like Naheem Harris. But all the Quakers have done this season is continue to stuff the run and hold opponents to a total of 15 points per game. In the Ivy opener Penn held Dartmouth, with one of the better runners in this league in Milan Williams, to just five total rushing yards for the game.

On the bright side, the Quaker did give up a lot more yards to Georgetown's option attack last week. But many of those yards came after the game was decided against the Quaker backups.

Penn is also riding high on the play of defensive backs Tyson Maugle and Chris Wynn. But Maugle is not listed in the Penn two-deep and may still be out after missing the Georgetown game. The Quakers are allowing a paltry 148 yards passing per game and have picked off seven passes already this year. Wynn is also a great kick returner as he had a KO return for a TD to open the game last week.

Offensively, this looks like a weaker Penn team than we've seen in a while and the running back situation doesn't improve that outlook. QB Robert Irvin is having just so-so year, again with as many interceptions as TD passes. Back-up passer Kyle Olson, who is also the punter, has potential but Bagnoli is keeping him on a short leash, (but much like the old Dallas Cowboys under Danny White, you have to worry about the fake when Olson goes back to punt).

The receivers are all pretty talented, but not Miles Macik types in the crew. The best weapon through the air may be tight end Josh Koontz who is playing a bigger role this year.

Special teams are much improved. Wynn is doing very well returning kick offs AND punts and is looking to challenge Cornell's Brian Walters for the title of best returner in the Ivies. Kicker Andrew Samson is becoming solid if not spectacular. Remember, this is a Penn team still smarting from some horrific kicking failures in 2005 and 2006.

On paper, this Quaker squad seems vulnerable. And that's what worries me. As usual, I expect Penn to be super-motivated for Columbia and they will come out pumped up no matter what injuries they have. The defense will be looking to make an early statement with a big sack, hit, or interception.

Quick Turnaround

Al Bagnoli turned a cellar-dwellar into an undefeated champ in less than 2 years

In 1991, Penn football hit bottom. After going 9-1 and tying Cornell for the title in 1988, Gary Steele took over as head coach and promptly "led" the team to three straight losing seasons, including a 2-8 1991 campaign that included, gulp, a loss to Columbia. (20-14 and the game shouldn't have been that close).

Out Steele went and in came Al Bagnoli. His first season was your basic shakedown cruise... oh wait, it wasn't. Bagnoli magically took that 2-8 team and turned it into a 7-3 powerhouse with losses to only league champ Dartmouth, Keith Elias and the Princeton Tigers and Colonial League power William and Mary.

The next season, Penn went 10-0 and won each game by an average of about 18 points.

To call that a quick turnaround is an understatement, and trying to figure out how Penn and Bagnoli did it remains the biggest unsolved mystery for me in the 25 years or so that I've been closely watching Ivy League football.

For Columbia fans, who have been waiting for years to turn it around, the speed in which Penn came off the mat is definitely something that makes us envious, and maybe a little irrationally suspicious.

The Quakers' dominance lasted well beyond 1993. 1994 was another 10-0 season. 1995 was 7-3 and second place. 1998 was an 8-2 championship year. 2000, 2002, and 2003 were also title years, with 2003 being another 10-0 campaign.

Penn President Amy Gutmann (CREDIT:

But 2003 was the last time Penn won the football title. And that's also when current Penn president Amy Gutmann came on the scene.

Could the two incidents be related? When I asked Bagnoli last year if he felt he was getting enough support from the administration, he mostly shrugged. I get the feeling he had more to say... but couldn't.

Gutmann is the 2000's version of a power woman in a power couple. Her husband is an endowed law professor at Columbia. Her daughter and son-in-law are rising star professors at Princeton.

For all I know, Gutmann is supporting athletics more than anyone at Penn, but the time parallels here are pretty clear. This is not only the longest championship draught for Bagnoli, his Quaker teams have had three straight losing Ivy seasons! And basketball fell off a cliff in 2007-08 for the first time in... forever.

But another head-scratcher for me is Bagnoli's continued belief in QB Robert Irvin. I'm sure he's a fine human being, but he just doesn't seem like he can lead Penn to a title. In the past, that was a recipe for a transfer QB like Gavin Hoffman or Matt Rader, who came from Northwestern and Duke respectively to lead Penn to happy days in Bagnoli's past.

Is the Penn administration hamstringing Bagnoli on transfers and other recruiting options? Again I don't know and don't pretend to know. All I'm saying is that since the new regime came in at Penn, the Quakers haven't won a football title and seem to be getting further from the top every year. That hasn't stopped them from maintaining a 10-year winning streak on the Lions, but everyone else seems to be taking more advantage of the Quakers these days.

That could surely change this season. Penn played well in losses to very good Villanova and Lafayette teams and beat Dartmouth and Georgetown going away. They will be favored to beat Columbia Saturday on the backs of their stronger than expected defense. Harvard and Yale don't look as good as they did in preseason and we all know Brown and Princeton are vulnerable.

But the institutional decline for Penn football is a big mystery for me. Bagnoli doesn't look burned out like Harvard's Joe Restic was years ago and he's not really "getting too old" like Yale's Carm Cozza became after 1990.

So, I'm at a loss and I hope I get more clarification at Saturday's game, (hopefully a nice win for Columbia). You never know.

Keeping it Going

Bill Hiney lets one fly (CREDIT: Suffolk Times)

Not every former college or pro football player lets himself go after his playing days.

Last week, I interviewed Ted Gregory '74 at halftime and he looks like he still is about 160-165 pounds! Last year, I interviewed Eugene Rossides '49 who at age 80 was still lean and fit.

Now we have this story about William Hiney '66, former Columbia linebacker, center and punter. At age 63, he's still competing in track and field.

You've heard me rant on this site many times before about obesity in America and the corresponding death of compulsory athletic team participation at all levels of education. So it's nice to see someone over 50 still working up a sweat out there.

We're not going to stop being a fat and out of shape country until we make everyone, from kindergarten on up, play sports. (Of course I'm excluding those kids who are physically disabled, but you knew that already).

Phys. Ed at Columbia and every other resident college should be expanded. One class per semester should be compulsory... and I'm talking about real work up a sweat type stuff. I'd also like to see intramural sports be emphasized even more.

That's my dream and I approved this message.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Ready to Rumble?

Austin Knowlin has been a thorn in Penn's side (CREDIT: Columbia Athletics)

Austin Knowlin has been quieter on the field so far this season, but one has to wonder if that will change this Saturday because Knowlin has had some of his best games as a Lion against Penn.

In his rookie year, Knowlin almost single-handedly got the offense going with a 6-catch, 102-yard performance. Columbia lost 16-0, after blowing some good scoring chances in the red zone set up by Knowlin.

Last year, he had 10 catches for 188 yards against Penn and a couple of TD's. Columbia was torched by a 59-28 score in that game, but Knowlin's big grabs came both before and after Penn pulled away.

Penn's secondary is much improved, (not that it was ever that weak), this season with Tyson Maugle and Chris Wynn having super years. But that only means it's even more important for Knowlin to have a big game to at least loosen things up in other areas of the field.

Knowlin's lower numbers this year may simply be the product of a new QB in Shane Kelly who simply isn't looking to #83 as much as Craig Hormann did for two years.

I suspect the Penn coaches aren't completely sold on the reduced roll for Knowlin and will look to overcompensate in coverages against him, at least early on. But I'm not sure whether or how Columbia will take advantage of that.

Penn faced an option offense from Georgetown last week, and it seems the Quakers did quite well against it. But the option may still be Columbia's best chance to loosen up a Penn defense that is starting to gel.

In this sense, it's fortunate that Columbia faced Lafayette last week and is already used to opposing a strong and fast defense. Improving the execution on the option and getting Jordan Davis back to keep Penn guessing a bit more could be a key as well.

But at the end of the day, you need Knowlin to be making big plays too. With 16 catches for 290 yards already in the books against the Quakers, AK must be itching to reload.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Roots of a Rivalry

Al Bagnoli is rarely smiling on game day

Why does Penn seem to gear up for Columbia games? I'm sure every Quaker coach and player would deny it, but the hard fact is that for the last three seasons, Penn has played its best game of the year against the Lions.

Over the years, the motivation factor for Penn is obviously there when it comes to Columbia games, no matter how far apart these two teams are in the standings.


If this were 1985 or maybe even 1995, I guess you could look at academic standing as a reason. For about 25-30 years, Penn was a notorious second choice for a lot of New York area high schoolers who didn't get into Columbia. But I really don't think that's true anymore. It's basically impossible to get into both schools right now, and all the Ivies have become so super-aware of admissions "preferences," that very often a supposed second choice school like Penn or Cornell will REJECT an applicant they think will be accepted by Harvard or Yale, (just so they don't look like they're settling and to improve the number of accepted students actually enrolling, etc.).

But I really don't think any Penn football players or current students feel academically inferior to Columbia anymore. Again, maybe in 1988, but not anymore.

It could have something to do with Head Coach Al Bagnoli's predecessor Gary Steele, who DEFINITELY lost his job in 1991 the day the Quakers lost to Columbia, (even though they didn't officially remove him until after the season). The local Philly press depicted that loss as the absolute nadir for any other Ivy program and Bagnoli was definitely hired with that kind of "never again!" thinking in mind at the Penn athletic department. Al Bagnoli gets mad on the sidelines a lot, but you rarely see him madder than he gets during Columbia games... even when the Quakers are way ahead.

When Columbia makes the trip to Franklin Field every other year, you usually sense that hatred in the stands more than anywhere else. I suppose to every other Ivy school, we've regrettably become the lovable losers, but the Penn crowd seems genuinely angry at us. Again, I'm not sure why. If Penn students were all actually from Philadelphia, I could understand it as being a little part of the NYC-Philly sports rivalry, but what percentage of Penn's student body is really from Philly and its environs? I'm willing to bet that percentage is way down compared to 50, 30 and 20 years ago.

So frankly, I'm at a loss here. But I have to say it's an exciting little "intangible" to focus on over the next few days. Another exciting turn of events is that Penn's fall break will actually be over this week instead of just beginning on gameday Saturday as it usually is when the Lions head to Penn. It's also going to be Penn's family weekend which should mean attendance will be decent in the cavernous Franklin Field.

After four very close losses, one has to think that something's gotta give with this Lions team very soon. Whatever the reason why they hate us, a win over Penn would be very sweet indeed and would jump start the team for the remainder of the season.

The danger here is for Columbia to look ahead to Dartmouth, which is also 0-4 after playing super top quality opponents week after week, and figure that's their best chance for a win. I don't think Dartmouth is as weak as they look, and even if they are, this game against Penn holds the potential for salvaging an entire season.

Get on the bus and cheer them on.

Hop on the Bus!

This is how we roll!

As frustrating as the 0-4 start has been for Lions fans, just think how great a win over the Quakers at Franklin Field would feel this coming Saturday? Now think how bad you'll feel if you miss an opportunity to see that game live!

Here's the solution:

Join us on Saturday, October 18th, when the Lions travel to Philadelphia to take on the Penn Quakers at Franklin Field. Special fan busses, sponsored by Columbia Athletics, will depart Amsterdam Avenue and 116th Street at 9:30 AM and return immediately following the game. Kickoff is at 1:00 PM. You must purchase a $15 game ticket to board the bus. Tickets can be purchased at the Dodge Fitness Center Ticket Office or by phone at 888-Lions-11. These tickets are NOT available on line. Seating is limited. We look forward to seeing you on Saturday.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Shorted Out

Next stop, Franklin Field

Lafayette 13 Columbia 3

Why Lafayette Won

The Leopards defense was dominanting and the offense had just enough spark to win. They made no turnovers and no stupid penalties and overcame injuries to some key players, including starting tailback Maurice White, who went out of the game for good in the first quarter.

Why Columbia Lost

The Lions got very little going offensively, and when they were in a position to score, they blew most of those rare opportunities. Columbia had two first and goal situations that could have led to a total of 14 points. Instead they came away with just three points, leaving 11 points on the table in a game they lost by just 10 points.

Key Turning Points

1) Late in the first quarter with Lafayette leading by 3-0, Mike Stephens energized the crowd with a beautiful 53-yard punt return for a first down at the Leopard 24. Three plays later, Columbia had a 1st and goal at the Lafayette seven, but moved the ball no closer. Jon Rocholl's eventual 25-yard field goal attempt was blocked and the Lions came away with no points.

2) On the ensuing drive, Lafayette took the ball 80 yards for a TD and 10-0 lead. The key play on the drive was a 30-yard pass on a 3rd and six from QB Rob Curley to Tim Watson who split the seam against the left side of the defense just like Princeton did three times in the previous game.

3) Columbia had an excellent opportunity to cut the Lafayette lead to 10-7 at the end of the half, but two running attempts after a 1st and goal at the one went nowhere. The Lions had to settle for a field goal because the clock was running down and the Leopards had a touchdown lead going into the lockeroom.

On the bright side, this was a strong game for the Columbia defense. Drew Quinn had another monster game with 13 tackles giving him 54 on the season after just four games!

Freshman nose tackle Owen Fraser continues to impress. He had seven tackles, including one for a loss. For the most part, Columbia's opponents are avoiding running the ball right up the middle against the Lions, and he's the biggest reason why. That's a welcome change from last year.

Lafayette's defense made Shane Kelly look like an almost totally different quarterback than he's been so far this season. Kelly didn't throw an interception, and he went a decent 18-for-33. But he held the ball way too long over and over as the Leopard defense bottled up the Lion receivers all day. Kelly also had a lot of trouble getting the option going and Columbia was fortunate not to have any turnovers despite four fumbles and a couple of Kelly passes that could have been picked off.

Austin Knowlin only had one catch for 17 yards. His lower numbers across the board this season are starting to get weird. It seems like he could break out at any time, but when?

Without Jordan Davis, the Lions opted to use Ray Rangel for just about every running play. Against Lafayette's strong run defense that just didn't work.

Tight end Andrew Kennedy did make more of an impact that he has in most of the games this season with 5 catches for 42 yards. I expect him to continue to post similar stats for the rest of the season.

The Leopards got a nice lift from D'Andre Morrow, who replaced the injured White and brought some great speed to the table. The Lions eventually were able to contain him, but his excellent run for the game's only TD was impressive and more a result of his strength and determination than a missed tackle by the Columbis defense.

Andy Shalbrack made his presence felt with 11 total tackles, including two monster back-to-back tackles for a loss in the fourth quarter. He also almost grabbed an interception.

Kalasi Huggins suited up but did not play after going out of the game against Princeton. Fellow freshman AJ Maddox replaced him and he did a nice job despite missing a few plays himself after getting banged up in the game. Overall, the Lion secondary did a fantastic job holding the Leopards to just 150 yards passing and superstar receiver Shaun Adair to just 3 catches for 11 yards.

Taylor Joseph had the best day receiving for Columbia with five catches for 59 yards. He continues to impress in his junior year.

All in all, this was another game Columbia lost that they could have won. However, this was clearly the first game where they definitely seemed like the weaker team on the field that day. The Lions have to try to build on the improving defense while getting the offense back on track. The next opponent, Penn, has to at least be a little worried that the team that scored 24 points against them in week 2 barely managed 13 against Columbia.


Call this Saturday's games a "return to normalcy" in the Ivies as some of the favorites, namely Yale and Harvard, rolled to easy victories over Ivy opponents.

Harvard scored a TD in the first millisecond against Cornell and then rolled to a 38-17 win. So much for Cornell's perfect record. The Big Red looked lost much of the day.

Yale overpowered the Big Green in Hanover and won 34-7.

Brown lost to Holy Cross 41-34 in a non-league game, but what a game it was. Listen to these stats:

1) Bear QB Michael Dougherty went 41-of-60 for 526 yards, 4 TD's and no interceptions.

2) Brown ran the ball a grand total of 12 times the entire game.

3) There were no turnovers in the game.

After three weeks of playing relatively low-scoring games, the high-powered Brown offense is back.

Princeton lost a tough one on the road to a very good Colgate team, 27-24. Jordan Culbreath, who Columbia really shut down last week, ran for 153 yards on just 18 carries. QB Brian Anderson, who really hurt the Lions last week, had a rough game, going 6-for-14 for 105 yards, one TD and an INT.

This means the winner of the Brown-Princeton game this coming Saturday in New Jersey will be all alone atop the Ivy standings.

Penn beat the weak Georgetown Hoyas in Washington, 27-7, but starting tailback Michael Dimaggio went down with a separated shoulder and it's unclear when he'll be back. Freshman Matt Hamscher came up big replacing Dimmagio and running for 102 yards and TD.