Columbia (0-8, 0-5 Ivy) takes to the road for the final time in what has been a season filled with heartbreak and disappointment. This Saturday’s contest at Cornell (3-5, 1-4 Ivy) will be the Lions’ second-to-last opportunity to salvage a win this season. Additionally, Columbia will compete to retain the Empire State Bowl trophy it won in dramatic fashion last year.
Cornell’s 25.4 points scored per game is second in the league and will be a big challenge for Columbia’s defense, which has allowed an average of 29.8 points per game.
The key to the Big Red’s high-flying offense is stellar sophomore quarterback Jeff Mathews. The Camarillo, Calif. native is by far the Ivy League’s most dynamic quarterback, averaging nearly 300 passing yards per game. Mathews’ 15 passing touchdowns also lead the conference.
“He is very good player,” head coach Norries Wilson said. “You’ve got to try to get a pass rush on him.”
Wilson went on to commend the Big Red’s improvement.
“Their offensive line has done a great job this year,” Wilson said. “They cut their sacks, hits on the quarterback way down from where they were last year.”
The Big Red also has three of the league’s top four receivers in terms of yards per game. Senior wide receiver Shane Savage—who leads the league with 91.5 yards receiving per game and six touchdowns—has teamed with junior wide receivers Luke Tasker and Kurt Ondash to account for 13 of Mathews’ 15 touchdowns. That said, there is not one of the three who Wilson believes is the biggest threat.
“I think they’re all pretty good players,” Wilson said. “They do a good job spacing the field out, and having you have to cover the entire field, vertically and horizontally. I think the guys are going to have to be very conscious in their zones as to who’s running through, and what route combination is coming towards them.”
The Lions’ defense will need to do a lot more than cover three receivers in order to stop Cornell’s offense.
“We’ve got to make plays in the pass game defensively,” Wilson said. “We’ve got to pick some balls off, get some hands on some balls, and we’ve got to get these guys covered down the field.”
Columbia’s senior defensive back Ross Morand picked off a ball deep in Lion territory last week against Harvard and returned it for an 87-yard touchdown. Plays like this will be essential if the Lions hope to contend with Cornell in a shootout.
Cornell’s defense is a stark contrast to its offense. Giving up an average of 26 points per game, the Big Red is close to the bottom of the league in points allowed. The defense—led by league-leading tackler senior linebacker Brandon Lainhart—has also allowed 401.2 yards per game, the most in the league.
Wilson spoke about Cornell’s ability to confuse and limit opposing offenses.
“I think they want to try to make you one-dimensional,” Wilson said. “When you get into formations where you expect to see six in the box they’ll leave seven in the box. Their safeties will play downhill and insert themselves into the run defense.”
Cornell’s defense may allow Columbia more breathing room than any other Ivy League team, but the slew of injuries plaguing the Lions will complicate things.
Senior offensive lineman Jeff Adams appears to be out for another week, leaving the all-important left tackle role open. Junior running back Nick Gerst and sophomore running back Marcorus Garrett are also unlikely to see the field Saturday.
These absences will place added pressure on junior quarterback Sean Brackett, who is finally starting to come into his own after a slow start to the season.
Special teams will be another key factor in this game, as Cornell’s senior defensive back Rashad Campbell has already taken two kicks for scores this season. Senior place kicker Brad Greenway is a perfect 22-for-22 on PATs and has only missed one field goal all season.
Kickoff in Ithaca is set for 12:30 p.m.