Senior captain and defensive back Landon Baty stood in Columbia’s end zone, as Princeton was driving down the field on the brink of a touchdown. With the score knotted at 21, Baty was poised to lunge when Princeton quarterback Kevin Davidson received the snap.
It was first and goal and nearing the end of the fourth quarter as Davidson needed just one yard for the go-ahead score.
Instead, Davidson helplessly watched as Baty forced a fumble and dove for the recovery on Columbia’s three-yard line, forcing a turnover and changing the tide of the game. After senior quarterback Anders Hill found sophomore wide receiver Ronald Smith II for a game-winning, 63-yard touchdown, the Lions won 28-24 for their first victory against Princeton since 2010.
When asked about the victory, Baty could not contain his excitement.
“It was a culmination of all of the hard work we’ve put in, and we’ve really wanted to put this program on the map,” he said. “For us it was a satisfaction level of, ‘Okay, we’re here. Where are we going to go from here?’”
Columbia has a 4-0 record going into Homecoming—the first Light Blue team to win its first four games of the season since 1996—but it is slated to play Penn, whom the Lions haven’t beaten since that fateful 1996 season.
But just last year, the Quakers steamrolled the Light Blue 35-10—and this game was just one of several speed bumps in Baty’s career at Columbia.
Starting against Penn in his second-ever Ivy League game, Baty was exploited through the air. He allowed three completed passes totaling 87 yards and two touchdowns in the second half, propelling the Quakers to victory.
“I’ve grown a lot as a player since that [game],” Baty said. “What I’ve learned is, if I’m playing my best and I’m mentally locked in, then I can be the best. And I strive to be that. I try to prepare harder than anyone in the league. And for me, that game really opened my eyes.”
During his first fall training camp, Baty tore his labrum and was unable to play for the rest of the season. Instead of joining his teammates on the field and in practice, Baty was forced to train in the weight room with a limited number of players and some strength coaches.
Originally recruited as a wide receiver, Baty spent a year and a half working to make gains in the weight room to get back on the field. After head coach Al Bagnoli took over in the spring of 2015, the program’s focus shifted to recruiting talented receivers, which threatened Baty’s position on the scout team. But after rehabilitating his labrum, Baty continued to “bring his lunch pail” to every practice, and the defensive coaches started to take notice. During winter training of his sophomore year, Baty switched positions and earned his spot as a defensive back for the Lions.
“He hasn’t had the most conventional road here in his four years,” Hill noted. “He kind of just took the injury with stride. … I think he really just kind of went to work, put his head down, and got better.”
This year has brought about the dawn of a seemingly new program as the Light Blue gets ready to face Penn, looking for its first win against the Quakers since 1996. And after successfully leading the defense to shut down four different offensive systems, Baty has already proven himself as a force to be reckoned with.
“I think he’s done a great job as a leader from a position standpoint for the team,” secondary coach and recruiting coordinator Jon Poppe said. “He make[s] sure that these guys are ready to play and focused to play—whoever the opponent is.”
In the first two contests of the season, Baty led the team with 12 tackles against Wagner and six against Georgetown. At Princeton, the defensive back forced a fumble, and just last weekend he caught an interception against Marist before the second string took to the field.
Both Poppe and Baty described the strong safety as the “quarterback of the defense,” a role that has proven instrumental to the team’s success. Through quick reads, strong communication, and the trust of his teammates, Baty has risen to the occasion consistently throughout the season.
The versatility of his position allows Baty to impact every play run by the defense, as shown by his ability to force turnovers this season. And while the undersized wide receiver recruit probably could not have foreseen this success, Baty attributes his personal renaissance to the overall camaraderie of the defensive unit and the team as a whole.
“That’s, I think, the biggest culture change from my freshman to senior year,” Baty said. “Just how close the guys are. We love being with each other, and we love hanging out with each other. You really see it on the field.”