On Saturday, two teams in blue and a horde of students in costume will enter the Bowl for a Halloween contest between the Yale and Columbia football teams.
Despite the levity of the holiday, Saturday’s game is a significant one for the Elis (4–2, 1–2 Ivy). Entering the second of five consecutive conference games, the Bulldogs need to rebound from last week’s 34–20 loss at league opponent Penn if they are to have a chance at an Ivy title.
“We came out with a lot of fire and energy [at Penn], but I felt like we got ahead of ourselves a bit,” linebacker Victor Egu ’17 said. “We weren’t doing what we normally do, and we weren’t consistent … I felt like that hurt us in the long run.”
Three red-zone turnovers, including two passes that were picked off in the end zone, crippled the Bulldogs, who lost a 10–0 lead when Penn’s offense rallied for a 20-point second quarter. Through six games, the number of interceptions thrown by quarterback Morgan Roberts ’16 — nine — equals the number of turnovers the entire Yale defense has forced.
That same defense allowed 533 yards and forced no turnovers against a potent Quaker offense. Despite Friday’s poor showing, the Eli defense has improved since last year, allowing 24.2 points per game this year after allowing 29.9 points per game in 2014. Safety Hayden Carlson ’18, Egu and linebacker Matthew Oplinger ’18 currently rank second, third and sixth, respectively, in the Ivy League in tackles, and cornerback Spencer Rymiszewski ’17 is second in the league in passes defended.
“After reflecting on the game and watching it, the same feeling I had walking off the field is the one I had after we watched the game early Saturday morning,” head coach Tony Reno said. “I felt like we didn’t play up to our standards. I felt like we gave the game away … we beat ourselves in some areas.”
The possibility of a potential letdown looms large this weekend, as a historically dreadful Columbia football program comes to New Haven. The Lions have had only three winning seasons since 1970 and won zero games in both 2013 and 2014.
But Columbia (1–5, 0–3), the longtime punching bag of the Ivy League, appears to be receiving renewed support under fresh leadership. The university’s new athletic director, Peter Pilling, has pulled out all the stops in his first year, hiring the winningest active coach in the league, longtime Penn coach Al Bagnoli, and increasing the football budget by at least 50 percent, according to a report from The New York Times.
These aggressive decisions have already begun to pay off: three weeks ago, the Lions broke their 24-game losing streak, beating Wagner College for the team’s first win since November 2012. The team followed the milestone victory with a near-monumental upset against then-No. 25 Dartmouth last week, taking the undefeated Big Green down to the final minute before ultimately falling short, 13–9.
“Columbia is much better than [its] record suggests,” captain and defensive back Cole Champion ’16 told the News. “They pose a number of challenges for us going into the game Saturday that we will work to prepare for.”
First among these challenges is a stout defense. While the Big Green did everything in its power to hand Columbia the game last weekend, drawing 17 penalties that cost 159 yards of field position, Columbia managed to sack Dartmouth quarterback Dalyn Williams six times. Prior to Saturday, the mobile signal-caller had only been sacked seven times all season long.
Additionally, the Lions held the Big Green, which entered the game averaging 158.4 rushing yards per game, to just 88 yards on the ground. This is a worrisome number for Yale, as its offense has struggled this season when it has been one-dimensional.
Leading the ground game this past month has been running back Deshawn Salter ’18, in the absence of injured starter Candler Rich ’17. The sophomore burst onto the scene in October, picking up 233 yards in his debut at Lehigh and earning Ivy League Offensive Player of the Week honors twice in his first four starts.
However, Salter is sidelined with a neck injury, so wide-receiver-turned-running-back Austin Reuland ’16 will get his first start on Saturday, according to Reno. Reuland scored his first career touchdown last weekend after Salter left the field.
In addition to Salter, right guard Jon Bezney ’18 and wide receiver Bo Hines ’18 will not start due to injury. Replacing them will be Jeho Chang ’18 and Christopher Williams-Lopez ’18, respectively, Reno said on Thursday.
While Chang and Williams-Lopez have seen extended amounts of playing time this season, Reuland, who has struggled with a hamstring injury, will be in for a tough test.
Reno pointed to Columbia’s four-man defensive line as a potential area of concern, calling tackles Niko Pedilla and Dominic Perkovic “big, physical guys.” In the secondary, Reno noted the similarities between Columbia’s and Yale’s, adding that the Lions’ corners also play aggressive press coverage.
Roberts compared the Columbia defense to that of Maine, a team Yale beat 21–10 two weeks ago. He said the similarities provide an advantage, as the team is familiar with some of the base coverages the team displays.
Offensively, Columbia returns an experienced bunch with talent at the skill positions. Veteran running back Cameron Molina earned Second-Team All-Ivy recognition last year, and wide receiver Scooter Hollis is currently ranked sixth in the conference with 31 receptions.
This season, Hollis has been catching balls from recent University of Florida transfer, quarterback Skyler Mornhinweg. Mornhinweg is one of two Power 5 transfers to start behind center this year in the Ivy League: Roberts, who left Clemson for Yale in 2013, is the other.
“[Roberts and Mornhinweg] both possess a lot of natural ability,” Reno said. “When you look at arm strength and tangibles, you can see why they were at the schools they were at. Skyler can make every throw.”
Champion said Mornhinweg is as good as any quarterback the team has faced at making zone reads. The mobile junior quarterback has three rushing touchdowns on the season — as many as Molina, the more traditional rusher.
Last year’s matchup, a 25–7 Eli victory, marked Yale’s 11th win in the last 12 meetings between the schools. The Bulldogs’ defense had its best outing of the 2014 campaign in that victory, holding the Lions to 285 total yards and picking off four passes. Defensive back Jason Alessi ’18 had two of those interceptions.
The offense more than doubled the Lions’ output, notching 586 total yards. Rich shredded the Lions defense for a career-best 202 yards on just 17 carries, and Roberts added 267 yards through the air.
Reno said that this year’s Columbia squad has made huge improvements over the last 12 months. Pointing out that the Lions now boast the third-best defense in the Ivy League, Rich said that Bagnoli’s new philosophy and coaching staff have created a very different-looking team.
Kickoff from the Bowl is set for 12:30 p.m. The game will be available for streaming on FOX College Sports.
Correction, Monday, Nov. 2: A previous version of this article misstated the last time the Columbia football team finished with a winning record; in fact, the Lions have had three winning seasons since 1970.