Although the football team has already suffered three losses in the 2013 season, head coach Pete Mangurian has no issues with his team’s degree of effort. But upon reviewing Columbia’s 53-7 loss to Princeton on Saturday, Mangurian seemed to sum up the game in one word—disappointing.
“I really felt when we left to get on the bus on Friday that we’d had a really good week of practice and we were prepared—I knew we were prepared,” Mangurian said in a phone interview on Wednesday. “I thought emotionally we were in a pretty good place. But things went badly early, and before you know it you’re looking uphill at the score and it tests your mental toughness.”
The same issues that plagued the Lions during their first two games—inconsistency, missed tackles, and missed assignments—reared their ugly heads again in the game against Princeton. And though the Tigers only led 7-0 after the first quarter, they used their frenetic offensive tempo to bring the score to 22-0 before five minutes had ticked off the clock in the second.
“We didn’t stop them early and we didn’t respond offensively early,” Mangurian said. “We had some opportunities for some big plays offensively that would have changed the game, kept us in it, and I think the game got away from us.”
It was after the Tigers’ third touchdown, with 10:03 left in the first half, that Mangurian put in first-year quarterback Kelly Hilinski to replace struggling sophomore Trevor McDonagh. Neither of the QBs was able to set the world on fire against Princeton, but McDonagh had led Columbia to just 11 first downs in his last five quarters—only one of which occurred on Saturday—so there was a clear reason for the change.
McDonagh has completed just 40 percent of his passes (24-60) for 202 yards, one touchdown, and one interception during three games. Hilinski finished at 47.6 percent (10-21) in his collegiate debut on Saturday, for 132 yards, a touchdown, and an interception. As a point of comparison, the current passing leader of the Ancient Eight, Jeff Mathews of Cornell, has completed 66.4 percent of his passes (73-110) for 972 yards, eight touchdowns, and four interceptions.
As Columbia continues to move forward without injured junior Brett Nottingham, the team is left to choose between these two quarterbacks. Mangurian quoted an old football adage when he said, “If you’ve got two starters, you’ve really got two backups.”
“Right now, we’ve got two backups,” he added. “We don’t have anybody that’s a starter. So we’ll play the guy that’s playing well, and we’ll continue to go that direction.”
But according to Mangurian, being a starting quarterback is about much more than simply playing well. He said that there are two things he looks for in a signal caller. The first is leadership—he wants someone who will go into the huddle with energy and a positive mentality.
“You can’t put it on paper. You can’t write it down,” Mangurian said. “If you’ve played this game, you know what it looks like.”
The second characteristic is consistency—an attribute that the coaches have yet to see out of either McDonagh or Hilinski.
“We’ve had flashes of it, but we haven’t had enough,” Mangurian said. “The thing that I’m positive about this week, that I feel good about, is that it’s been competitive in practice. Nobody has relinquished their desire to be ‘The Guy.’”
He said that when one quarterback excels in a particular area, the other steps up and tries to do the same. And the coaches have been clearly telling the players when they do or do not handle a scenario correctly.
“Sometimes you do that by whispering in their ear, and sometimes you do that by announcing it to everybody—it just depends on the situation,” Mangurian said. “But we’re looking for growth of a leader. That’s what we want. But talking it and playing it, they’re not the same thing. You’ve got to show it. You’ve got to execute.”
Mangurian said that the mid-season quarterback battle hasn’t become a distraction to the team because everyone is fighting to become better and more consistent.
“The best thing that each player can do for our football team is play the best that they can possibly play,” Mangurian said. “So it’s not that there are any factions, or any thoughts of this guy should be there, or that guy should be there. Everybody is kind of worried about themselves.”
As the team heads into its final nonconference game of the season, the Lions’ highest-quality football can only be ahead of them.