Monday, November 28, 2016

What Remains

A full report card on the 2016 Columbia Football season is coming soon, but the inevitable looking ahead to 2017 has already begun for many of us. And before we do that, we have to consider a few news items I'm hearing from sources:

1) The Athletic Department gets VERY touchy about reporting who is coming back for a 5th year until the news is completely official. But I can report that at least two players, one a very key starter and the other an emerging important contributor on the team, are both in the process of applying for 5th year status.

2) A player who left the program this year and could truly help the team this coming year is slated to return.

3) And of course, a large chunk of the incoming freshman class is yet to be unveiled.

But here are the top three issues to ponder during the 41 remaining weeks of the football offseason:

1) Can QB Anders Hill play like he did against Cornell and Brown for an entire season, or at least most of one?

Hill was not perfect in the last two games of the season, but he was much improved. And it's better that he wasn't perfect, because expecting him to maintain a 300+-yard/no INT type level would not be realistic in any case. But the QB who got into good sync with rising sophomore WR's Josh Wainwright and Ronald Smith, and still ran effectively was the kind of guy who could indeed lead the Lions to a 6-4 or 7-3 season in 2017. If Hill can be that guy and hone that experience during the offseason, then Columbia has probably it's biggest question answered in a good way for next year.

2) Are the backup linebackers ready to step up?

The biggest question last year, or so we thought, was whether the Lions could recover from the loss of all the graduated talent on the defensive line. For the most part, Columbia did fine in that area. Now with the graduation losses of Gianmarco Rea, Keith Brady, and Christian Conway, the linebacker corps seems like it will suffer some real growing pains next year. But there's still a lot of optimism that rising sophomores Jalen Williams, Michael Murphy, Matt Tofano, and Levi McQuinn, (who plays a sort of hybrid safety/LB position), and don't forget rising junior Cal Falkenhayn, could be even better given some time to improve. This is a talented crew and Head Coach Al Bagnoli has a long history of coaching up linebackers to an elite level in the Ivies. But this unit is definitely under scrutiny now.

3) Will the Offense keep up the momentum?

Much of this third question is basically an addendum to question #1, but the improvement in the Columbia offense starting with the second half of the Yale game was obvious. It appears the coaching staff adjusted to working with Hill's strengths, which is throwing a deeper ball and using the middle of the field. The running attack also got a lot better. The punchless Lion offense of weeks one through six, was replaced by a higher scoring machine from that point on. With that offense, Columbia probably would have won their first two games against St. Francis and Georgetown at least. This is the kind of offense the Lions need to have ready for next season.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

All Ivy

Oren Milstein

The 2016 All Ivy awards are out and the Lions have two 1st Team awardees, six players on the 2nd Team, and oddly no one on the Honorable Mention list.

Freshman PK Oren Milstein earned the rare unanimous recognition on the 1st Team, setting himself up for a chance to be the first ever four-time 1st Team All Ivy player in Columbia history.

I'm betting fellow 1st Teamer senior LB Gianmarco Rea was close to a unanimous choice, but since he didn't get there he's not likely to be named one of the two finalists for the Defensive Player of the Year award. But what a year he had!

Seeing seniors like RB Alan Watson, DB Brock Kenyon, P Cameron Nizialek, and LT Kendall Pace get some recognition on the 2nd Team was nice to see, but it's also great that two returning players, DB Cameron Roan and DL Lord Hyeamang made it too.

It disappointing that more of the stellar players like LB's Keith Brady and Christian Conway, and WR's Josh Wainwright and Ronald Smith were overlooked. But sometimes that can be worth more in motivation for next year.

Bottom line is that Columbia improved this season and showcased a lot of very young talent for the future. Not all of it was recognized, but this program is looking for more wins and not necessarily more All Ivy recognition.

Monday, November 21, 2016

The Best for Last

Columbia 31 Brown 13

Why Columbia Won

The Lions clearly outplayed the Bears on offense and defense for four quarters. Columbia's running attack was potent, it's long passing attack was lethal, and the defense rarely gave much ground. This wasn't just the Lions' best game of this year, it was Columbia's best game in six years.

Why Brown Lost

The Brown offense set the tone by failing to get a TD on its first possession even though it started at the Columbia two yard line. Then, the Bears were positively inept on 3rd down all day. The defense couldn't stop the Lion passing game, especially in crucial situations. Even Brown's much-heralded place kicker missed two of his three FG attempts on the day.

Key Turning Points

-After a blocked punt on Columbia's first possession gave Brown the ball at the CU two, the Bears went backwards on two plays that lost yardage and a 15-yard personal foul penalty. Brown had to settle for a long field goal and the Lions had dodged a major bullet.

-With Columbia leading 14-6 with 6:03 left in the half, Brown got another golden opportunity when Lion QB Anders Hill made his one mistake of the game and threw an interception to a sliding Will Twyman at the CU 31. But on the very next play, Bear QB Thomas Linta threw a pick to emergency Columbia Cornerback starter Denzel Hill. 

-With the score now 21-13 in favor of the Lions and 11:50 left in the game, Brown had a chance to tie the game as it took over at their own 20. But the Columbia defense forced a three-and-out and on the Lions ensuing drive Columbia chewed up 4:20 of the clock and got an Oren Milstein FG to basically put the game out of the Bears' reach.

Columbia Positives

-The Lions were fantastic on 3rd down on both sides of the ball. They converted eight of 17 3rd downs on offense while holding Brown to just two of 15 conversions.

-The long passing game clicked so well that the Lions averaged an astounding 10.1 yards per attempt. Subtract the two incomplete passes thrown by Skyler Mornhinweg, and Hill was 11.1 yards per attempt. Josh Wainwright had five catches for 150 yards and two TD's.

-Senior RB Alan Watson closed out his career with a career day, rushing for 158 yards and scoring a 69-yard TD on Columbia's last offensive play of 2016. Watson finished the year third in the Ivies in total rushing yards.

-Playing for the injured senior Jared Katz, the senior CB Hill had a brilliant game with that key INT and helping to keep Brown to just 126 yards passing on the day.

-Milstein was perfect again, hitting a key 4th quarter FG despite having to kick it twice after a false start penalty negated his first successful attempt.

-The defense played an entire game without a major lapse. This enabled the Lions to finish an impressive third in the Ivies in total defense and first in pass defense.

-The stellar Columbia senior linebacking crew finished their great season on a high note. Gianmarco Rea led the team with 10 tackles, Chris Conway came in second with eight, and Keith Brady was third with seven. The trio combined for five tackles for a loss. Rea finished the year as the Ivy League's leading tackler with 108, a stunning 12 more than his nearest challenger.

Columbia MVP

Alan Watson had his best game of the year. Josh Wainwright had his best game of the year. It was another great game for all the Columbia linebackers.

But the most important position on the field is quarterback. And QB Anders Hill had the best game of his career. He threw the deep ball well. He threw the short ball better. He ran well. He took four sacks, but Brown's blitz-on-every-play defense was the reason. Hill's performance showed just how good this Lions team could be with good QB play. He was the Columbia MVP in this season finale.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Last Dance, Last Chance

Columbia Lions (2-7) at Brown Bears (4-5)

November 19, 2016 

Brown Stadium

Kickoff Time: 12:30PM

Gametime Weather Forecast: 58 degrees and sunny

The Spread: Brown is favored by 3.5 points

TV/Radio: The game is available live on the Ivy League Digital Network. Superior audio the game with Jerry Recco and Sal Licata is available on the Columbia Online Radio Network.

Columbia Game Notes

Brown Game Notes

Leading Storylines

1) This is Columbia's last chance to get that elusive third win for 2016 and make the strongest argument that it has indeed improved over last year's 2-8 mark. Brown is looking to surprise a lot of naysayers and claim a winning record in the Ivies.

2) Brown seems to be getting better every week with junior QB TJ Linta at the helm. Look for the Bears to use this game as a launching point to contending for a title in 2017.

3) Columbia's offense has suddenly come to life over the last few weeks, greatly due to the emergence of freshman WR Ronald Smith as a 100-yard per game threat. A rare warm season-ending game in Providence could be his chance to make a case for Ivy Rookie of the Year.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Week 10 Picks

*Sorry for the reduced posting lately. The election and its aftermath has had me busy at work, especially since I was the only mainstream media columnist to predict a Trump victory.

I went 2-1 straight up last week and 3-0 against the spread to bring my season totals to 26-12 straight up and 24-14 ATS.

Penn -10 1/2 at Cornell

The Quakers aren't going to lose focus now, even though I think the Big Red have enough offense to make it closer. In the end, Penn will cover.

Harvard -12 1/2 vs. Yale

Yale doesn't have much left in the tank, not even for The Game.

Dartmouth +14 1/2 at Princeton

I think the Big Green has enough fight left in them to make this closer. But the Tigers will still win.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Shootout Victims

Cornell 42 Columbia 40

Why Cornell Won

The Big Red offensive line dominated the line of scrimmage on pass plays and produced 259 yards rushing to boot. A Columbia team that netted five sacks against Harvard the week before produced no sacks this against Cornell. The Big Red defense forced three turnovers to seal the deal.

Why Columbia Lost

The Lions defense played its worst game since the loss to Princeton, never getting pressure on Cornell QB Dalton Banks and suffering inexplicable breakdowns on some of the most crucial short yardage running situations in the game. A number of dubious calls, including one that negated a Columbia TD, did not help. The Lions finished with 11 penalties for a galling 156 yards.

Key Turning Points 

-With Columbia leading 14-7 and about four minutes left in the 1st quarter, the Lions were driving to another score when Alan Watson crossed the goal line with the ball which sprung out of his hands when he hit the ground in the end zone. The ground cannot cause a fumble, and the play should have been called a TD, but the refs gave the ball to Cornell. Three plays later, Cornell tied it up at 14-14.

-Leading Columbia by 28-27 just before the end of the 3rd quarter, the Big Red began a drive at their own 15. They promptly converted three 3rd downs and one 4th down on a 15 play drive that ended with a TD. The Lions were playing against Cornell, the Big Red, and the clock after that.

Columbia Positives

-The Lion offense finally broke out and played an impressive game for most of the contest's 60 minutes. Alan Watson ran for over 100 yards. Freshman WR Ronald Smith had 11 catches for 195 yards. Both QB's collectively completed better than 60% of their passes.

-PK Oren Millstein continued to show his worth with a 44 yard FG to end the 1st half and a 37-yarder later in the game.

-Every single point in the game for Columbia was scored by a freshman, boding well for the future.

Columbia Negatives

-Columbia's corners were both abused with regularity after playing well all season. Something went haywire at the worst time.

-The no sacks at all and no real pressure were a bad surprise.

Columbia MVP

-WR Ronald Smith had a monster game where he showed a signature move of moving back inside after the catch to get more yards. He had an incredible day. He has since been named Ivy League Rookie of the Week.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Week 9 Picks

I had a pretty good week eight, going 3-0 straight up and 2-1 against the spread. That puts me at 24-11 straight up and 21-14 ATS for the year.

Penn +2 1/2 vs. Harvard

The Quakers were not exposed by Princeton last week as much as the Tigers showed how good a team they really are. Penn will bounce back and beat the Crimson.

Princeton -17 1/2 at Yale

The Elis are plum terrible. Princeton is plum perfect.

Brown +10 1/2 at Dartmouth

The Big Green don't do blowouts, not against anyone. Dartmouth will win, but not by much.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Quarterly Failings

Harvard 28 Columbia 21

Why Harvard Won

The Crimson defense played well enough to make up for a sluggish offense and spotty special teams play, and forced enough Columbia turnovers to win. The Harvard D allowed just 259 total yards and 13 1st downs.

Why Columbia Lost

The Lions blew a 14-7 halftime lead with another disastrous turnover filled quarter. And even when not turning the ball over, the CU offense still could not operate consistently.

Key Turning Points

-Leading 14-7 at the half, the Lions fumbled the 2nd half opening kickoff away. That set the tone for a disastrous Columbia 3rd quarter. Harvard did not score off of that turnover, but when the Lions fumbled the ball away on their next possession it did lead to a Crimson TD.

-With Harvard leading 28-21 and 3:39 left in the game, the Lions had a great chance to tie it up when they started a possession at their own 46. But three Columbia pass plays netted negative one yard and the Lions had to punt it away.

Columbia Positives

-The Lion defense played stellar football. Against the top team in the Ivies, Columbia held the opposing offense to just 2.7 yards per carry. The Lions also got five sacks, and four other tackles for a loss.

-Columbia executed a brilliant punt block and recovery for a TD thanks to two promising freshmen. Michael Murphy got the block and Hunter Lunsford scooped it up for the TD.

-Speaking of freshmen, Murphy and Lunsford were far from the only first-years to make an impact. Freshman DE Daniel DeLorenzi had two sacks, freshman DT Arman Samouk had one. Freshman DT Alex Robin, (a player many of us believe has a great future for CU),  got significant playing time and two tackles. WR Ronald Smith brilliantly handled a TD pass from while he was covered closely in the end zone. Fellow freshman WR Josh Wainwright fumbled that opening 2nd half kickoff, but he also looked good on Columbia's final scoring drive and caught a TD pass of his own.

-The total mental collapse that could have ensued did not materialize after Columbia's disastrous flurry of turnovers in the 3rd quarter.

Columbia Negatives

-The Lions fumble problems and general difficulty with protecting the football is at a crisis level. Without the fumbles, Columbia wins this game.

-The Lions seem to be totally unwilling or unable to sustain a steady running attack. This game was never a blowout, but Columbia threw the ball 46 times to just 28 rushing attempts. Oh and since sacks are counted as rushing attempts in college, the Lions really only tried to run it 26 times the entire game... not including improvised QB scrambles. You can't win at any level of football when you can't run the ball effectively and/or don't have the confidence in your team to do so.

Columbia MVP

-This is starting to sound like a broken record, but how can you not give the MVP nod to LB Gianmarco Rea after his 15 tackle, two sack performance? Brock Kenyon comes in second place after his seven key tackles and the interception that should have bailed out Columbia permanently early in the 3rd quarter.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Week 8 Picks

I went a nice 3-0 straight up last week, but only 1-2 against the spread. That brings me to 21-11 on the year straight up and 19-13 ATS.

Princeton -3 vs. Penn

We've had some great games among the top teams in the Ivies this year, but I've got a feeling this one could be the best. The Tigers really bounced back nicely looked week after losing to Harvard the week before. I think they're just more on the rise than a Penn team that hasn't been as sorely tested as Princeton has.

Brown +2 1/2 vs. Yale

This game looks like a complete toss up, so I'm picking the home team to win and taking the bonus points.

Dartmouth -6 1/2 at Cornell

The Big Green need this game badly to keep their program momentum going. They'll win and cover.

The Columbia Cubs?

Our future

Admit it.

If you're a Columbia football fan, you watched the Cubs run to the World Series title and hope it will provide inspiration for our long-suffering Lions to do the same someday soon.

If you're like me, you've been mentally comparing the Cubs brilliant GM Theo Epstein to Head Coach Al Bagnoli. You've noticed that the Cubs did poorly in the won-loss column in each of Epstein's three first years at the helm, while his old team the Boston Red Sox won another World Series in 2013... just like the Lions are struggling now as Penn wins more championships.

And so on, and so forth.

Columbia fans knew when we brought Bagnoli in that it would take time. He and new Athletic Director Peter Pilling essentially said the same thing as Epstein did when he came to Chicago: "be patient." And five years seems like nothing for most Columbia fans to wait.

Of course, Ivy League football is a much different animal than Major League Baseball. We don't have trades, free agents, or the steady stream of monstrous cash the Cubs could rely on despite their miserable history.

But Bagnoli is a proven winner and Pilling is a serious guy who knows results on the field matter the most. Bagnoli may be much older than Epstein, but he sure doesn't look like he's slowing down.

So take a very vivid picture of the Cubs and their fans today. Hopefully, Columbia and its fans will be celebrating the same way in a couple of years.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Scouting Harvard

Justice Shelton-Mosley

Harvard has been following a familiar script in recent years: Win the first eight games of the season by big margins, and then play a tough one against Penn that can go either way.

This year, the Crimson have gone on a slightly different course. Harvard is 6-1 and has played a number of close contests along the way. They're coming off two extremely close contests in an OT win at Princeton and a 23-21 squeaker at Dartmouth.

Surely, a nice and easy win at home over Columbia is in order before next weekend's big game against Penn at Franklin Field. Right?

Possibly, but the fact is Harvard's offensive and defensive stats paint the picture of a Crimson squad that's still very good but simply not as dominant as we've become accustomed to.

For example, QB Joe Viviano is a great passer and runner. But he's only averaging 226 yards passing per game. Usually, you see an average of 250 yards or better for a Harvard QB.

RB Semar Smith is averaging about 68 yards per game and 4.4 yards per carry. Those are very good stats, but you expect a Crimson rusher to post better numbers.

And Harvard's superstar wide receiving corps, led by potential NFL prospect Justice Shelton-Mosley, has also been very good... but not great.

The offensive line hasn't been as dominant either, allowing 18 sacks in seven games.

The story is the same with the defense. This is a very good group, just not "Harvard great." The Crimson are allowing more than 100 yards per game rushing and more than 230 yards per game passing.

But when you look at the individual defensive stats, things look a bit more "Harvard-like." You do have the beast DE pass rusher in sophomore D.J. Bailey, who has six sacks. You have the ball hawking DB in Tanner Lee who has three picks. You have a trio of top linebackers all with 40 or more tackles per game in Luke Hutton, Anthony Camargo, and Jordan Hill.

So why else is Harvard still 6-1 and 4-0 in the Ivies?

I actually think Head Coach Tim Murphy has taken a page from Al Bagnoli's old Penn playbook and has crafted a team that focuses on just winning games as opposed to really dominating opponents. This Crimson team has grit and the only big question for them is whether they'll bring the same grit to the field in a classic "trap game" the week before a contest that should decided the Ivy title.