As the clock hit zero inside Schoellkopf Field, the mood on the Columbia sideline was different from that of other blowouts. More than just being the end of a quiet offensive game, or of a disappointing season overall, this loss felt like the end of an important transitionary era in Columbia football.
This marked the last time that Bagnoli’s first class of recruits would take the field as members of the Columbia football team—one that is unrecognizable compared to the team from four years ago.
Unfortunately for the Lions (3-7, 2-5 Ivy), they did not send their seniors out on a positive note, as the offense had trouble getting anything going while the defense was unable to slow down the Cornell rushing attack, resulting in a 35-9 loss in the team’s season finale.
Cornell (4-6, 3-4 Ivy) dominated much of the early going. On its second offensive play of the game, running back Harold Coles broke free for a 58-yard touchdown to put the Lions down 7-0 less than two minutes into the game. As late as midway through the second quarter, it looked like Columbia did not have a response to the Big Red offense, which scored 21 unanswered points to open the game.
Columbia started out slow, opening with a three-and-out on the first drive of the game, capped by senior tight end Rory Schlageter’s dropped pass. Even when sophomore quarterback Ty Lenhart did connect with his receivers, his passes did not go very far. After three series, he was 4-for-7 for 4 yards.
And when the Lions did find success on offense, they were held back by mental errors. The first big play of the game for the Lions came on third-and-7 in the first quarter as Lenhart found the heavily covered senior wide receiver and captain Josh Wainwright down the sideline for a 33-yard gain. However, the play was partially negated when Wainwright was called for a personal foul for taunting after the play. An additional unsportsmanlike conduct penalty was assessed to junior offensive lineman Josh Kaminski two plays later, meaning that the Lions lost 30 of the 39 yards they had just gained to unsportsmanlike conduct penalties. The Lions finished the game with numerous unsportsmanlike conduct penalties, which left Bagnoli frustrated after the game.
“The disappointment is that we created a lot of our own woes. It’s inexcusable to have five personal fouls for unsportsmanlike conduct,” Bagnoli said. “You can’t beat anybody. We gave away more free real estate today, against a good team which is playing really well, which you can’t afford to do when you’re the underdog and you’re on the road.”
As a result of their offensive futility, the Lions were in desperate need of a spark. With 6 minutes remaining in the half, they went deep into their playbook find it. As junior punter Drew Schmid lined up deep to kick it away on a fourth-and-1, he instead took off with the ball and ran for a 27-yard gain to give the Lions another chance to get on the board. Bagnoli said that he had that play in his arsenal for weeks and was just waiting for the right time to deploy it.
“I thought we’d have to steal some possessions,” Bagnoli said. “So we had a look that we’ve been practicing with, we’ve had this thing in the game plan for the last couple of weeks and we found a look that we liked and we triggered it and went for it.”
Columbia did not waste the opportunity and drove down the remaining 24 yards, culminating in a 10-yard touchdown reception by Wainwright, his fourth touchdown in as many games. Wainwright finished his first season back from a torn ACL with 578 receiving yards and five touchdown receptions, both of which lead the team but are short of his career-highs from the 2017 season, when he finished with 1,001 yards and eight touchdowns.
The Lions had one last chance to reduce the deficit before going into halftime. After sophomore punt returner Mike Roussos called for a fair catch at the 32-yard line, the Light Blue had 1 minute and 41 seconds for its offense to wake up and march down the field.
The Lions found success working the sidelines to give themselves as much time as possible, but the largest chunk of yardage came when Lenhart found Wainwright once again, this time in the middle of the field. Wainwright zoomed past a leaping defender to pick up 28 yards.
However, the Columbia offense stalled out at the 10-yard line and was forced to settle for a field goal to put the score at 21-9 heading into halftime.
Cornell’s success on offense was led by the crisp passing attack spearheaded by quarterback Richie Kenney, who had success finding receivers Eric Gallman and Phazione McClurge, even when the Columbia defensive backs were draped all over Cornell’s receivers.
The Lions boldly looked to build off of their second quarter success by starting the second half with an onside kick. But Cornell was first to jump on the ball, setting the team up with great field position to start the half.
The dangerous field position was nearly neutralized when Cornell lined up to punt on fourth down, but mental errors continued to plague the Lions as the referees called a roughing the kicker penalty on first-year wide receiver Cameron Burt, giving Cornell another chance to score. Cornell capitalized on the mistake just five plays later, as running back Thomas Glover found an easy path to the endzone on a jet sweep to put Cornell up 28-9.
While Cornell continued to run up the score, the Lions struggled to gain any momentum on offense, finishing the half scoreless. For Bagnoli, the offensive ineptitude was in large part due to the team’s inability to create explosive plays.
“It’s really hard to have 12-, 14-play drives against this defense, so you’ve got to be able to make some explosive plays, and I thought that’s the one area we’ve not had great success with, is creating explosive plays,” Bagnoli said.
For Columbia, this loss is just a microcosm of the consistent disappointment that plagued this season. For the seniors, this loss hit particularly hard, as a win would’ve made them the winningest class at Columbia since 1963. Despite not earning this illustrious honor, Bagnoli doesn’t want the seniors to forget what they’ve done for the program.
“They’ve really done a great job with just being able to elevate the program to where it’s now relevant again,” Bagnoli said. “It didn’t end the way we wanted it to end and I’ll take a lot of the blame for it.”
While the season—and the Columbia careers of the seniors—may be over, most of the players have time to prove that this season does not define them. And if the Lions are going to improve next season, Lenhart knows that the work starts now.
“This offseason is going to have to be like never before. You know there’s gonna have to be some changes and there’s gonna have to be an emphasis on getting better every single day. No excuses, this is going to be the craziest offseason for Columbia football ever,” he said.