The old Memorial Field, when it held more than 20,000
It's another year, another 0-5 start for the Big Green who have the most murderous first half schedule known to man in the Ivy League.
Three times since 2004, both Columbia and Dartmouth have been winless going into their meeting in week 6. But not this time.
This time the Lions are 2-3, more importantly 1-1 in the Ivies, with legitimate dreams of finishing the season in the top three or better. This is the best Columbia team Dartmouth has faced since the Big Green's program decline that began after the 1997 season.
So where does this Dartmouth team stack up? There is some evidence the Big Green are improved over last year, especially when it comes to their running attack. In other words, they now have a running attack thanks to a wonderful cutback runner in sophomore Nick Schwieger who trails only Columbia's Ray Rangel in the Ivy rushing race. This may be the first time in years that the current #1 and #2 Ivy rushers are facing off in the same game.
Schwieger is one of many sophomores who have become the most visible leaders on the field for the Green, either due to their talent or the loss of older players due to injury.
Yes, the great 2009 Ivy League injury epidemic has hit Hanover about as hard as any other Ancient Eight hometown. QB Alex Jenny is out for the season, putting soph Conor Kempe in the starting slot. Kempe has the talent, but he hasn't quite proven he can make the reads and execute the plays as well as he should at this point in his career. He put up nice numbers against Holy Cross last week, but the game was not close it's not clear just how much he was truly tested. I expect Columbia to pressure him mercilessly all day.
Another sophomore leader is the very talented Shawn Abuhoff. He can really hurt you as a kick returner, but he's also a good cornerback who will probably be asked to contain Austin Knowlin Saturday. Abuhoff's fellow starting corner is yet another sophomore, J.B. Andreassi.
Dartmouth's biggest problem this year is the same shortcoming that killed them last year: stopping the run. Remember the Lions ran all over the Big Green in last year's 21-13 Lion win in New York. Again, there is some improvement here, mostly thanks to the standout play of junior Charles Bay on the defensive line, but I expect Columbia to give Rangel and Olawale a healthy amount of carries as pure runners to test this Dartmouth defense.
New Memorial Field, capacity 13,000
The numbers don't lie, against Holy Cross last week the Big Green gave up 5.7 yards per carry, and the Crusaders are not really a super running team. Two weeks ago against Yale, Dartmouth allowed about 4.2 yards per carry, and Yale is not a strong running team either. Penn rushed for 6.3 yards per carry for a total of 288 yards on the ground against the Green in Hanover in week 3. That was on a wet field and by the same team that Columbia held to 118 total rushing yards and just 2.4 yards per carry in dry conditions. Dartmouth gave up 269 rushing yards to UNH, and 292 against Colgate.
Penn, Colgate, and even UNH are great running teams this year, but the Big Green's only decent day on rush defense came against a Yale team that beat them 38-7. The Lions have to feel confident with their strong offensive line coming into this game.
Dartmouth's pass defense seems much better, but the numbers are at least a bit deceiving because teams have been able to run at will against the Big Green and they simply don't NEED to pass that much, (Sound familiar? It should because our Lions posted decent pass defense numbers in 2005 and 2006, mostly because the rush defense was so pourous).
Dartmouth's offense has struggled mightily this season despite the emergence of Schwieger. Star wide receiver Tim McManus has been out all year and it doesn't appear that he will play Saturday. In his place, junior Tanner Scott has started to make some noise and he may be Kempe's favorite target. Tight end John Gallagher seems like he could be used more as a weapon but I don't think he has the same rhythm with Kempe that he did with Jenny.
But I think the Green's biggest issue on offense is their offensive line. It's young, with four sophomore starters, and it's small, with an average weight of 269 pounds and no starters heavier than senior right tackle Alexander Toth at 280. The front five are actually very tall, and clearly they're playing better than their weights would indicate, but that's a lethal combination: smallish, young O-line and an inexperienced, raw starting QB.
Shawn Abuhoff is the Green's best weapon (CREDIT: Dartmouthsports.com)
Special teams are generally an area of strength for Dartmouth, with Abuhoff returning kickoffs at 30.3 yards a clip and punts at a lofty 12.3 yards apiece. Matthew Kelly punts well and Foley Schmidt is a reliable 9-9 on PAT's, (wouldn't we love that stat?), and a decent 3-4 on his field goal attempts, although his longest FG is 29 yards this year.
There are a number of intangibles to discuss here, especially the feeling in Hanover that this may be the Big Green's best chance to get a win and end their current losing streak at 17.
In reality, it isn't. The upcoming home games against Cornell and Princeton will provide better opportunities for Dartmouth to grab a victory, especially because the Lions can run the ball a lot better than either of those teams. But it's also homecoming at Memorial Field, and that should keep the fans fired up unless Columbia can score first and hold the lead early.
Another factor could be the weather. The forecast is still calling for rain, but now they say the temp will be a positively balmy 56 degrees around gametime. If the field gets super wet, there's no telling if Columbia's offense will be able to run as well as it has every week with the exception of the last game against Penn. But the Lions have more weapons on offense and the Green have to play on the same field regardless.
Of course, the biggest intangible of all is the pressure on Head Coach Buddy Teevens. No matter how fairly or unfairly, a loss to Columbia on homecoming won't help. Yes, Columbia is a better team right now but the alums at Dartmouth remember the old Columbia and they will expect a win. Losing means the Big Green streak hits 18 games.
As always, for all the latest and best news on Dartmouth you must head over to Bruce Wood's Big Green Alert Blog.