Football will head to Providence this weekend in an attempt to right the ship. What looked to be a promising season for head coach Al Bagnoli and the Light Blue has been decimated by injury and a tough conference schedule, but the team heads into its final two contests with a chance to end on a high note.
The Lions (4-4, 1-4 Ivy), will finally face a similarly lackluster team in Brown (1-7, 0-5 Ivy), the only remaining member of the Ancient Eight without a win in conference play. After getting blown out 52-18 at Harvard this past weekend, facing the struggling Bears could be exactly what this young Columbia team needs.
First-year quarterback Ty Lenhart will make his second career start in Providence after an up-and-down starting debut in Cambridge. Mainly a short-yardage rushing threat through six weeks, injuries to sophomore quarterbacks Josh Bean and Dillon Davis have forced Lenhart into full-game action behind center to mixed results.
Lenhart moved the ball well in the first half last week, taking the Lions on five separate red zone trips in the first 30 minutes. An explosive Harvard scoring attack combined with stagnant play-calling from the Light Blue, however, gave the Crimson an ultimately insurmountable multi-touchdown cushion early in the second half.
This in turn forced Lenhart into typical youthful mental mistakes—he threw multiple interceptions when he tried to push the ball downfield, too often locking onto targets like junior wide receiver Kaleb Pitts instead of calmly reading the coverage and playing within himself. Whether or not Lenhart can limit turnovers will be key for this high-ceiling, low-floor Columbia offense.
Bagnoli attributed Lenhart’s struggles both to age and to the compromising 30-mile-per-hour winds that day in Cambridge.
“[Lenhart’s] arm strength isn’t elite—you wouldn’t expect that as a true [first-year],” Bagnoli said. “Now you get into wind, when it’s against you, it becomes a little bit more challenging. At some points in the second half, that was about as fierce a wind as we’ve encountered.”
Despite significant injuries across the skill positions, Columbia’s depth has serviced it well on the offensive side of the ball and made life easier for whoever has been behind center. Pitts, first-year starting running back Ryan Young, sophomore tight end Casey Mariucci, and senior wide receiver and captain Kyle Castner have all reached the end zone in the past two weeks. Junior wideout Ronald Smith II returned to action against Harvard after a two-game absence, only adding to the Lions’ plethora of weapons.
The defense is also as healthy as it has been in weeks, contrary to its awful outing against the Crimson, one that saw the secondary repeatedly burned for touchdowns of 92, 75, and 74 yards, respectively, in the first half alone. The Lions held their previous four opponents to an average of 18.75 points and have nearly all of their key pieces in place.
Brown, meanwhile, has scored more than 17 points in a game just once all season, hanging 35 on Georgetown all the way back in late September. That was also one of just two times this year the Bears’ defense held opponents under 30 points. Columbia has plenty of issues, but its per-game point differential of -5.8 looks positively fantastic compared to Brown’s -19.4.
The one facet of Brown’s offense that Bagnoli noted could be worrisome is their passing game, especially given the Lions’ struggles on the back end versus Harvard.
“They’ve always wanted to throw the ball downfield. Unless we suddenly turn into a soft zone team, which we’re not, we better be able to hold up against them,” Bagnoli said. “We’re not going to stop every single [big play]. What we want to do is eliminate easy throws.”
With only two games left on the docket and a litany of injuries up and down the roster, finishing with multiple in-conference wins would be a victory in and of itself for Bagnoli and his young team.
Brown, unlike every other Columbia opponent this season, plays on a grass field, not turf. Adjusting to the field conditions is something Bagnoli sees as a pre-game necessity, whether that means testing out different cleats or pushing for a more run-heavy game plan.
This game, being the Bears’ final home match, will also serve as Brown’s Senior Day, additional incentive for the one-win team to go all out against the Lions.
“They’re throwing everything they have at this game,” Bagnoli said. “And it’s Senior Day, and we’re on the road, and we’re on grass. This game is going to be tough.”
Beating Brown on the grass would guarantee at least a .500 season record for Columbia with a winnable finale, at home for Cornell, coming up next week. The Lions’ developmental season can still end on a high note.
Kickoff at Brown Stadium will be Saturday at noon.