After two-and-half quarters of sloppy play and middling offensive efficacy, football looked poised to take a decisive lead for the first time deep into the third quarter.
Leading by just one point against a Brown team that remained winless against Ivy League competition, the Lions ran three straight rushing plays resulting in just eight yards gained. After a penalty and a pass that couldn’t quite make it, they faced a daunting fourth-and-two.
Recognizing the importance of converting this drive, the coaching staff motioned starting first-year quarterback Ty Lenhart to the sideline. Into his place stepped junior wide receiver Kyle Castner.
Castner took the snap in the wildcat formation, and launched an aggressive dive into the offensive line. First-down, Columbia. He rose off the ground, started moving towards the sideline, paused, and returned back to centerfield. He took another snap, and ran again. And again the next down. First-down, Columbia.
One Lenhart pass later, Castner got the ball again. He threw a vertical shovel pass to first-year running back Ryan Young who caught it with ease, and ran it into the end zone. Touchdown, Columbia.
The Lions (5-4, 2-4 Ivy) increased their lead to eight points on the day, and never looked back. They finished their trip to Providence with a win, defeating Brown (1-8, 0-6 Ivy) 42-20.
Throughout the game, Castner provided an intensity to a Lions offense that has struggled to finish drives and convert yardage into scoring. He was responsible for each of the Light Blue’s five touchdowns, scoring two through the air and three on the ground.
“We had a conversation as a staff ... and I said ‘[Castner’s] one of our most dynamic guys. We’re gonna have to expand that package,” Bagnoli said. “We’re gonna have to generate offense as best we can and we’re gonna have to take some heat off of the quarterback.”
In short, he provided the necessary spark to help coax a victory out of Lenhart’s most impressive performance to date and a second-half return of the dominant Columbia defense that guided the team to an 8-2 record just a season ago.
Through the first half, little mistakes accumulated for Columbia, who relinquished three huge plays to the Bears early and at one point found themselves entering the second quarter down by 14 points.
All three scoring drives for Brown ended with “big plays:” two catches and a run, each exceeding 50 yards, and each slipping by the Columbia secondary who saw larger and larger holes emerge in their various coverages.
“They scored one touchdown, we were in cover two. They scored one touchdown, we were in man to man. They scored one touchdown, it’s like we’ve gotta fix it,” Bagnoli said.
Through three quarters, the Bears averaged over ten yards per pass attempt, whereas Lenhart, as great as his day was, remained steady around seven per. This is hardly an indictment of Lenhart—rather, it articulates the great missing piece in the Lions offense: vertical threats capable of executing more ambitious play calls.
Castner’s efforts filled that void, and the remainder of the offense looked enlivened by his efforts. Lenhart completed nearly 70% of his passes, completing passes to 10 different targets, and, on the whole, looked poised in the pocket, using his trademark mobility when necessary.
“Ty, I thought, played exceptionally well,” Bagnoli said “Our kids are starting to grow up a little bit.”
This was far and away Columbia’s best offensive performance by every metric. They accumulated over 500 yards on the day.
The run game, which has remained stagnant for most of this season, rebounded in the second half. Young turned the game around and gained more than 50 yards on eleven attempts, finishing with 76 on 21 attempts.
Likewise, senior kicker Chris Alleyne who entered the game as the Lions leading scorer on the year, completed all six extra points (along with one missed field goal early on) to break the Columbia record for points scored by a kicker.
The offense was not exclusively responsible for the Lions victory. Despite their first-half lapses in high-yardage scenarios, the defense doubled its efforts in the second half holding Brown scoreless for the final 35 minutes of play as Columbia scored 28 unanswered points.
“We knew that we had to buckle down. When we do our job, all eleven guys, we're a great defense,” senior captain and safety Landon Baty said. “In the second half, [Defensive Coordinator Paul] Ferraro came in pretty fired up at halftime and we knew what we had to do.”
The defense tallied ten sacks on the day, and its increased ability to collapse the box and apply pressure to the pocket rendered Brown’s quarterback Michael McGovern almost useless. Aside from his two deep passes that totaled 128 yards, McGovern completed only five of 16 passes for 36 yards.
Likewise, if you remove the 90 yard rush by Brown running back Jakob Prall, the offense rushed for a meager negative two yards.
The comparison of the two teams’ offense is best captured by statistics. The Light Blue amassed 24 total first-downs to Brown’s six, and 515 total yards to Brown’s 254.
On the whole, this was the definition of a well-rounded win, with superior effort on both ends. For the first time since Ivy League season started, the Lions looked like a cohesive and functional unit, even if it was against an admittedly weak opponent.
“The win is what it’s all about. We put together a great team game,” Castner said. “The offense and the defense were feeding off of each other in the second half. We fixed our mistakes.”
Columbia now stands above 0.500 on the year with the chance to finish the season at 6-4 if it pulls off the win next week in its season finale against Cornell.
For a team that has faced as much adversity this season as the Lions have, starting four different quarterbacks and losing roughly 30 different players to injury at one point or another, a .600 win percentage would be nothing short of incredible.
Kickoff is set for next Saturday, Nov. 17, at Robert K. Kraft Field at Lawrence A. Wien Stadium.