A few months ago, when little was known about the upcoming Ivy League football season, the Yale football team’s matchup at Columbia was the only game on the Bulldogs’ schedule that, whatever happened during the season, seemed like a likely victory.
The Eli quarterback situation was unclear, the defense was an unknown and Columbia looked to be heading in a positive direction despite its 0–10 record last year. Even then, however, a program that has not won a game since 2012 did not look to be a threat in the Ivy League.
Now, six weeks later, the Bulldogs (5–1, 2–1 Ivy) have emerged as one of the top offenses in the nation, and Columbia’s squad (0–6, 0–3) has continued to deteriorate with a 31 point average margin of defeat and the loss of its co-captain and quarterback.
All that has done is strengthen one fact heading into tomorrow’s contest in New York: on paper, this game appears to be a mismatch.
Nonetheless, Yale players and coaches said they are still preparing for a strong showing from a Columbia team that held Princeton to a four-point deficit through one half, and most recently played its closest game yet, a 27–7 loss to Dartmouth.
“Columbia is a team that I think is where we were two years ago,” head coach Tony Reno said. “They have a good group of players that haven’t had as much success as they probably could have [had].”
The Lions currently lay claim to the worst offense and defense in the Ivy League, both in total yards and points. They were also last in all four of those statistics at the end of last season.
In Columbia’s winless 2014 campaign, perhaps the most significant player is one who is no longer on the team’s roster. Former co-captain and quarterback Brett Nottingham, who transferred from Stanford at the beginning of the 2013 season, was named a backup two weeks ago after throwing seven interceptions and one touchdown in the Lions’ first four games. Nottingham has since left the team.
Quarterback Trevor McDonagh has been effective in Nottingham’s absence, entering Columbia’s game against Monmouth in week four and instantly impressing with four second-half touchdowns to finish off the 61–28 loss.
Since then, McDonagh has passed for a combined 548 yards in his two starts behind center, but the team’s scoring production has gone down to just seven points in each of the games, with both touchdowns coming through the air.
The Columbia defense, meanwhile, has seen increasingly strong performances, as the recent losses of 31–7 to Penn and then 27–7 against Dartmouth were the least points allowed, and closest defeats, the Lions have had this season.
But that was the only win of the season for Penn, a team that the Bulldogs defeated 43–21 last week. And Dartmouth was playing without starting quarterback Dalyn Williams, who led the Big Green to a victory over the Bulldogs earlier this month.
In fact, all six of Columbia’s opponents put in a backup quarterback at some point in the game, indicating that the Lions’ 31.2 point average margin of defeat could have been even more extreme.
Still, quarterback Morgan Roberts ’16 said that Columbia will likely be tougher at its home stadium than at the Yale Bowl. His claim bears legitimacy, as the three most recent wins the Lions have had, all in 2012, were at home.
The contest in New York marks the beginning of a road-heavy part of the Elis’ schedule. After playing at home for five of its first six games, Yale will now play away for three of its last four.
“I always enjoy playing away,” Roberts said. “It’s a little more business-oriented, staying in a hotel and that whole deal. Our guys are excited.”
Yale will head into the game looking to continue the offensive prowess that has remained steady in all of its first six games.
Roberts has had all of his weapons on display, with last week’s win being a notable example of that versatility: captain and wide receiver Deon Randall ’15 broke a record for receptions in a Yale career, fellow receiver Grant Wallace ’15 posted a career-best 173 yards and running back Tyler Varga ’15 rushed for 140 yards and two scores, all in the span of just three quarters of playing time for the starters.
Still, Reno said that there remains room to improve offensively, and tomorrow’s game against Columbia is an opportunity to do so.
“We’re still not as fast as I want us to be yet, play in and play out,” Reno said. “I also don’t think we’re threatening the perimeter as much I’d want us to be.”
The contest will also be a chance to improve defensively, as Yale has won through its offensive onslaughts, rather than through its defense, ranked fifth in the Ivy League.
The Elis’ 43–21 win over Penn was the second-best defensive performance Yale has had this year, but all three Quaker scores were on touchdown passes of over 30 yards, an issue that has pervaded the Yale defense for much of the season.
“As a secondary, we work on pre- and post-snap reads, making sure we have the right alignment and assignment before making our reads,” safety Foyesade Oluokun ’17 said. “We want to be more confident and execute in games the way we know we can.”
The Bulldogs will look to improve in the secondary even without cornerback Spencer Rymiszewski ’17, who will miss the rest of this season with a spinal cord concussion.
Yale and Columbia will kick off in Manhattan at 12:30 p.m. tomorrow.