As I fled Boston last week following one of the most lopsided losses the Lions have suffered in the history of the Ivy League, I couldn’t help but wonder whether our football team had made any progress over the last year . Sure, the 69-0 thrashing had come off the end of three well-played games, including a victory over Yale. But the team that showed up in Cambridge seemed like they had never even seen a football before and had little interest in playing 60 minutes of it against a machine-like Harvard squad.
The most demoralizing thing, from the perspective of trying to change the perception of the football team, is that a scoreline like that becomes an easy punch line, a way of dismissing any progress made this year. You can’t turn a program around if you’re not putting together competitive performances, and last Saturday’s game was a disturbing regression to the team’s 2011 form.
Saturday’s Empire State Bowl suddenly became a game filled with meaning. It was not just Senior Day and a huge rivalry game against a team with the best quarterback in the Ivy League. It was, appropriately for an election week, a referendum on Pete Mangurian’s first year in charge of the Lions.
If you look at the story to the right of this column you’ll see that we won. The Lions, after a shaky second quarter, delivered the best half of football I’ve seen in 27 games over three years.
Nearly every facet of the game was strong. The defense shut down Cornell’s league-leading passing attack, forcing five turnovers and physically battering its shell-shocked opponent. Piling up six sacks and eventually knocking quarterback Jeff Mathews from the game, the Lions’ pass rush had its best game of the year. After allowing 10 touchdowns last week, the defense played with intensity all afternoon.
On offense, Marcorus Garrett—the Ivy leader in rushing yards and (I hope) a certain all-Ivy selection—tied the game in the third quarter with an explosive 86-yard touchdown run, leaving Big Red defenders in his wake. Sean Brackett connected with his blossoming receiving corps all day long, throwing three legitimately spectacular touchdown passes.
All day, Brackett put the ball near his receivers and Chris Connors, Connor Nelligan, and Hamilton Garner made difficult grabs to bring the ball in. It was a fitting capstone to a magnificent career for our senior quarterback, and it reaffirmed my feeling that our wideouts will strike some fear into the rest of the league in the seasons to come.
Maybe the best indicator of progress came after cornerback Brian DeVeau’s interception with 7:40 left in the fourth quarter. The Lions, up three scores, had little left to do but run out the clock. Not since week four against Lafayette in 2010 had a Lions win been secure with time to spare. There was some legitimate confusion in the crowd about how to react as the Cornell side of the stands began their odyssey back to Ithaca.
After this weekend (and with one game remaining), I think we can now declare this season a qualified success. No one wants to lose six games, or get blown out by 69 points. But Mangurian’s Lions put together four excellent Ivy games and two in the nonconference schedule. More importantly, they improved as the year went along, with young players beginning to develop and the squad showing the capacity to respond to adversity. After a year of unqualified disaster, Columbia football made some huge strides this year.
For every senior involved in game days at Baker Field—players, assistants, band members, cheerleaders, and the dance team, along with their parents and coaches—the last home game is always going to be bittersweet. But every one of them put on a show that they’ll remember for the rest of their lives, redeeming many of the struggles of the last three years. And the Empire State Bowl, resting in a trophy case at Levien for the next 12 months, is the symbol of that accomplishment—and, we hope, a placeholder for more silverware to come.
Peter Andrews is a junior in Columbia College majoring in history. He is an associate copy editor for Spectator. For Pete’s Sake runs biweekly.