The last thing any coach wants to hear is a report from a team doctor saying a key player has been injured. Unfortunately for football head coach Norries Wilson, these words have been heard a lot throughout this dreadful season.
With the team now at 0-7, it is important to look at factors like injuries, which are outside of the players’ and coaches’ control. The team is certainly not winless only due to injuries, but there have been countless close moments where one might have said: “Columbia may have won the game if only they had their receiver.”
Injuries are bound to occur in a physical sport like football, but the timing of the injuries and the personnel who have been afflicted has put Columbia on the wrong side of seven consecutive contests this season.
Injuries have plagued the Lions since their first week’s matchup at Fordham. While senior wide receiver Mike Stephens was back in the fold after sitting out most of last season with an injury, Columbia was short another key contributor in junior running back Nick Gerst.
The Lions’ run game was stifled, racking up only 73 yards. When Gerst is added as a threat in the backfield along with junior quarterback Sean Brackett and sophomore running back Marcorus Garrett, the Light Blue running game is three-pronged.
During the second game of the season, Columbia trailed Albany by 30 points in the fourth quarter. While many of the key skill position players were pulled for backups to avoid injury, Wilson elected to leave Stephens in to return kicks. After fielding back one return, he was tackled awkwardly and left the field hobbling.
Then came the Ivy League season opener at Princeton. Coming into the game, Columbia was the heavy favorite, but that didn’t seem to stop a motivated Princeton offense from rushing for 227 yards. While allowing that many rushing yards to a lousy Princeton team is never acceptable, the absence of Stephens—who was injured the previous game—may very well have been what the Tigers needed to hold Brackett to under 200 passing yards—preventing the Lions from coming back in the second half and allowing the Tigers to repeatedly run down the clock.
Stephens would miss the next two games, including another heartbreaking loss, this time to Penn. Columbia had several opportunities to capitalize on Penn’s mistakes, and the lack of a veteran presence might have led to Brackett’s inefficient 16-for-37 completion rate.
Brackett was absent for the loss to Dartmouth, but whether Brackett’s absence could lead to a 37-point swing is a completely different question. The biggest factor to figure in this loss is the players’ mentality, knowing they were going into the game without their offensive leader. How much this affected the team is unknown, but it certainly created a mental handicap for the struggling squad.
That led to last weekend’s snow-filled contest against Yale. With Gerst out, the Lions were already thin at running back, and this was a game where they knew they would have to do a lot of running. Brackett also sat out the previous game, so the team was still cautious with him, which meant Garrett would be in charge of the bulk of the carries. Rushing was one of the Lions’ biggest issues on Saturday—the team ran for only 69 net yards—and losing Garrett late in the second quarter may have been to blame.
Wilson said he did not change his strategy with the departure of Garrett because he believed the backups would fill in. Brackett reiterated this sentiment.
“Marcorus has really been out main back the whole year,” he said. “But I think David Chao stepped up nicely, Griffin Lowry, even Alec Fisher, the freshman, came in and they played pretty well for the conditions and the situation they were in.”
They may have stepped up, and Columbia did have a legitimate shot at winning the game, but its chances were seriously diminished when a familiar face was taken out of the game after scoring a late touchdown. Stephens’ four-yard touchdown reception was bittersweet for the Lions, as the senior had to sit out the remainder of the game.
“After I caught it, I kind of got folded over a little bit, but no big deal,” Stephens said.
For the third time, Brackett was without Stephens in a key moment at the end of the game. The junior quarterback did not have an open receiver on fourth down at the end of the contest, and the Elis picked him off. Stephens may not have gotten open, but he would have certainly garnered more attention from the defense than his replacement.
Injuries are not the only contributor to Columbia’s inability to win a football game, but it is not unrealistic to believe that Columbia would be on the right side if at least one of those matchups were it not for a few unfortunate bang-ups.