Gray clouds covered Baker Field from the early hours of the morning on Saturday, only allowing fleeting moments of sunlight to creep through as the hours passed into a dreary afternoon.
As far as a metaphor for Princeton’s sad slaughtering of Columbia football that day, the weather could not have been more apt. From the opening kickoff, returned by the Tigers for a nearly uncontested touchdown, the Lions never seemed to be in the game. What bright spots there were for the Light Blue were obscured by an inept offense and a rare sloppy performance from the defense.
With one game left in nonconference play—next week at Lehigh—it’s time for the coaching staff to figure out how to kick-start an offense that has looked uninspired. They can start by putting some edge into a game plan that was so conservative this week that even Rick Santorum called it “a little extreme” in a postgame interview.
Sean Brackett, our quarterback, is a talented athlete and a gritty performer. I’ll never forget the Cornell game in 2010, when Brackett used his scrambling and some well-chosen passes to will Columbia to a game-winning touchdown in the fourth quarter. It was probably the strongest performance by a single player I’ve seen in Ivy football.
When Brackett is at his best, he’s like Michael Vick—using his speed and toughness to confuse defenses and create plays where they seem impossible. When Brackett is at his worst, he’s like Michael Vick—making poor decisions with the football, throwing inaccurately, and taking an unnecessary pounding from a greedy defense.
Good-Vick, the one Eagles fans like myself are so enamored with, tends to appear when given some freedom to move about within the offensive scheme. Get him out of the pocket, away from the pressure, and he can terrorize defenses. Leave him in the pocket, and he turns into Bad-Vick, throwing interception after interception and generally leaving Eagles fans searching for something to throw snowballs at.
This is why the Lions’ offensive plan for the first three games is completely unsustainable. Brackett has been chained in the pocket, rolling out pretty much only when a play breaks down. In this position, his faults as a passer have been exposed, with receiver and quarterback appearing to be on completely different pages. Plus, the Lions’ lightweight offensive line was overrun by the massive Tigers, who hit Brackett repeatedly. If he gets hurt, like he did last year, we’re most likely screwed—as last season’s 37-0 defeat to Dartmouth without him demonstrates.
Paradoxically, the best way to keep Brackett healthy might be to get him outside the pocket. The value in having a light, athletic line is that it should be mobile enough to provide Brackett cover as he moves around. Adding an option-like wrinkle to the offense will keep opposing defenses confused and give Brackett an opportunity to maximize his skills. It will also create more space for running back Marcorus Garrett, who fought for 61 tough yards on Saturday, but often seemed to have little in front of him but Halloween-colored jerseys.
The other element of the game plan that can be opened up is the unwillingness to take risks, even when the situation demands it. In the first quarter, it was fourth-and-three on Princeton’s 31. Columbia, trailing 7-0, elected to punt, passing up the chance to put points on the board by going for it in exchange for field position. Following a touchback, this change of field position turned out to be 11 yards. Princeton marched downfield and put a touchdown on the board, and Columbia never really got in the game. Even as time to execute a comeback dwindled away in the second half, the play-calling still focused on predictable running plays on first down, blunting any opportunity to put a drive together.
Not only does it make tactical sense to take a few more risks, but it will also be good for team morale. It’s tough to generate momentum if you’re not taking opportunities to make a play and score points. The defense on Saturday was asked to do too much, and the only way to change that is to show some confidence in the offense and let them make plays.
There are now two games standing between the Lions and the homecoming game against Dartmouth—the biggest chance this season for the team and its new leadership to make a statement about their quality. Now we get a chance to see how these new-look Lions can respond to adversity. I don’t think the dark clouds over Baker are going to turn into a thunderstorm, but it will take thoughtful coaching to make sure the sun shines on October 20.
Peter Andrews is a junior in Columbia College majoring in history. He is an associate copy editor for Spectator.