The 24-point lead almost was not enough.
Yale (4–2, 3–1 Ivy) dominated the first half of Saturday’s football game against Columbia (3–4, 1–3), and took the field after halftime with a 31–7 lead. But the Bulldogs’ offense did not manage a point in the last 30 minutes of the game, and the Lions mounted a furious rally, taking advantages of four Yale turnovers in the second half. In the end, though, Columbia’s comeback fell short when linebacker Jesse Reising ’11 swatted down a fourth-down pass with 2:10 left. Yale ran out the clock to preserve its 31–28 victory.
“We had a great first half and it felt like we were firing on all cylinders,” Yale quarterback Patrick Witt ’12 said. “But it was a tale of two halves.”
The Elis looked unstoppable in the first 30 minutes of the game, earning 245 yards of total offense. The defense allowed Columbia only 101 yards and recovered two Columbia fumbles, both inside the Lions’ 25-yard line. The offense did not commit a single turnover and scored on all four of its trips to the red zone.
It took less than a minute for the Yale attack to get on the scoreboard. Two plays after Chris Smith ’13 returned the opening kickoff 48 yards and across midfield, running back Alex Thomas ’12 took a handoff from Witt, found a big hole in the Columbia line, and raced 42 yards for his fifth touchdown of the season.
“[Running back] coach [Roderick] Plummer told us before the game that this was going to be one of the games where we were going to pound it, pound it, pound it, and break one,” Thomas said. “We just broke one on the first play.”
Yale could not muster the same explosiveness on their next drive and was forced to punt. But the kick from Greg Carlsen ’14 pinned Columbia at their own 24. Two plays later, Yale captain Tom McCarthy ’11 stripped the ball from scrambling Lions quarterback Sean Brackett. Linebacker Sean Williams ’11 recovered, and Philippe Panico ’13 gave Yale a 10–0 lead with a 32-yard field goal a minute and a half later.
The Columbia offense was unable to regroup and cut the Yale lead, and managed only six yards in the first quarter. The Elis took advantage of every turnover, and added 14 points to their lead in the span of 19 seconds midway through the second quarter. Both scores were passes from Witt to wide receiver Cameron Sandquist ’14, and were the first two college catches of the 5’9”, 155-pounder’s career.
“I guess I couldn’t have imagined it any better,” Sandquist said.
Yale was able to score twice in such rapid succession thanks to another Columbia fumble. Witt’s first, a 10-yard pass to Sandquist capped an almost 6-minute long drive. The next, a 15-yard pass, was the offense’s first play after Williams stripped the football from Columbia fullback Nathan Lenz.
The Witt-Sandquist connection gave Yale a 24–0 lead, but Columbia showed signs of life on their next drive, which accounted for nearly their entire offensive output of the half. Brackett — who entered this week’s game with the Ivy League’s highest completion percentage — engineered a 14-play, 89-yard drive, which he capped with a touchdown strike to tight end Andrew Kennedy.
But Yale stormed back. A Carlsen punt on the ensuing drive turned into a 42-yard play when Columbia returner Nico Gutierrez dropped the ball and Money recovered at the Lions’ 22. Three plays later, with less than a minute left in the half, Witt found Allen Harris ’13 wide open in the back of the end zone for a 16-yard completion.
The halftime whistle soon paused the 31–7 blowout, but then the winds began to shift.
“What I said in the locker room would get me fired,” said Columbia coach Norries Wilson. “But I will say that we didn’t make any adjustments. There were no adjustments to be made. The only adjustment was doing what you have to do.”
Neither offense could do what it had to do for most of the third quarter. Two Yale drives ended when Witt threw interceptions. Columbia’s Calvin Otis almost took the second of those mistakes back for a touchdown, but Witt managed to drag him down close to the sideline. Because of a facemasking call on that tackle, Columbia started their drive with a first and goal on the Yale 10. But linebacker Will McHale ’13 neutralized the threat with an interception of his own three plays later.
Despite McHale’s effort, Columbia started to make up the deficit. On their next possession Brackett found Kennedy 23 yards downfield to make the score 31–14. Penalties sunk the Lions’ next drive, but then cornerback Adam Mehrer grabbed Columbia’s third interception of the game with 13:03 left. Brackett made the most of the possession, and found a streaking Gutierrez in stride for a 41-yard touchdown that narrowed the score to 31-21.
The Yale defense did not give up. Jordan Haynes ’11 — who led the team with nine tackles on the day — picked off a Brackett pass with 10:38 to go. But the Eli offense turned the ball over seconds later, when Thomas lost control of the football after a nine-yard carry.
Brackett made no mistakes on the ensuing possession, and a third pass to Kennedy brought Columbia within a field goal with more than six long minutes left to play.
But finally Columbia’s luck ran out. Reising made his crucial pass block, and Columbia walked off the field feeling much like Yale had last week, when a furious comeback against Penn fell short.
“You can’s spot any team like Yale points like that,” Kennedy said. “You can’t have to beat a team by 25 [points] in 30 minutes. You have to win games start to finish.”
Yale said it took the same lessons out of the game. Although the Bulldogs received a career-high 137 yards on 19 carries from Thomas, and saw Witt spread his 213 yards passing out among nine receivers, turnovers threatened to sink them for the second consecutive game.
Next week, the Bulldogs will look to play a more consistent game against Brown,(4–3, 3–1) which lost to Penn on Saturday and sits tied with Harvard and Yale at second in the Ivy League.
“Good teams bounce back,” head coach Tom Williams said. “If you’re a championship quality team, you come back with a vengeance.”