For the second straight week, Yale football head coach Tony Reno sat alone at Yale’s post-game press conference on Saturday. Though the coach is traditionally flanked by two or three of the day’s standout performers, Reno’s star players were either too injured or too disheartened after dropping three of their last four games to join him this weekend.
Injuries and illness have ravaged the Bulldogs (4–3, 1–3 Ivy) this season, rendering a team that thrilled fans with two come-from-behind victories in September nearly unrecognizable. On Saturday, the Elis fell to a season low, with a 17–7 loss at once marking Yale’s first home defeat in over a year and Columbia’s first conference victory since 2012.
The Yale offense, which entered the game averaging 405 yards per contest, put up just 120 total yards — its fewest since a 10–0 loss to Harvard in 2008 — while achieving five first downs and scoring zero points. The lone score for the Elis came from a punt return touchdown by defensive back Jason Alessi ’18 in the first quarter, and 17 unanswered points from the Lions (2–5, 1–3) followed.
“We weren’t effective in either the run or the pass game,” Reno said. “There were a lot of issues out there today. We didn’t execute really, in any area offensively. It was disappointing … [but] I’m confident our guys will bounce back.”
Columbia, which has begun a turnaround of its program under new head coach Al Bagnoli, succeeded defensively while capitalizing on injuries to Yale players — 12 of whom are out for the season, and another 28 who have missed time at some point this year. The Lion defense forced two fumbles, sacked Yale’s quarterbacks six times for 48 yards and held the Bulldogs to -14 net yards on the ground. While attempting to mount a late comeback, the Elis managed just 21 yards in the second half, and two in the entire third quarter.
Although the Lions scored 10 more points than the Bulldogs, they also struggled offensively. Columbia’s tying score, a seven-yard touchdown reception by wide receiver Hank Trumbull, came late in the second quarter on the Lions’ first trip inside Yale’s 35-yard line. The Lions’ final 10 points were all scored by kicker Cameron Nizialek, as he tacked on a field goal in the third quarter and also scored a touchdown on a fake in the fourth.
Quarterback Morgan Roberts ’16, who earned first-team All-Ivy honors last year, finished 12–24 for a career-low 104 passing yards. He threw his 10th interception of the season and was replaced under center by Rafe Chapple ’18 during drives in both halves.
“We felt like we needed something to jumpstart the offense and give Morgan a chance to collect himself,” Reno said. “At the end of the game, I felt the same thing. We just needed to do something differently on offense.”
Under heavy pressure, Chapple fared only slightly better. The sophomore finished 3–5 for 30 yards but was sacked three times. Columbia took advantage of an offensive line that has struggled with illness and injuries throughout the season, frequently sending overload blitzes.
Two of Chapple’s completions went to slot receiver Christopher Williams-Lopez ’18, a former high-school teammate. The signal caller estimated the two Greater Atlanta Christian alums have played more than 50 games together.
“I know exactly where [Williams-Lopez is] going to be and he’s reliable,” Chapple said. “He was my go-to guy in high school and when Bo [Hines ’18, injured slot receiver] went down, he was Morgan’s go-to guy.”
Williams-Lopez, playing in his fourth game after returning from a preseason neck injury, finished the day as Yale’s leading receiver, with five receptions for 33 yards.
On the defensive side, safety Hayden Carlson ’18 led the team with 12 tackles. Linebacker Matt Oplinger ’18 picked up the team’s two sacks — his second two-sack game this season — and fellow linebacker Andrew Larkin ’16 intercepted Columbia quarterback Skyler Mornhinweg.
“We always play hard but yesterday, we didn’t play smart,” Chapple said. “The defense played very well yesterday. [The offense] put them in terrible situations and they kept bailing us out. We just didn’t execute the way we’re capable of.”
Columbia quarterbacks Mornhinweg and Anders Hill, who switched off under center, both finished with the same 50 percent completion rate as Roberts while combining for 90 passing yards. Mornhinweg had the lone Columbia passing touchdown.
The quarterbacks’ running ability proved almost more productive, as the two also combined for 62 rushing yards on 18 attempts. Columbia running back Cameron Molina led the way with 76 rushing yards.
“When we saw our offense having so much success, we knew it was our job to hold [Yale] right there,” Lions linebacker Christian Conway, who had a strip-sack of Chapple in the fourth quarter, said. “We pride ourselves on having a lot of energy, and once the offense got it going, we brought a little extra.”
The lack of offensive production overshadowed what could have been Yale’s best special teams performance of the season. In addition to Alessi’s punt return, defensive end Hunter Simino ’19 had his second career fumble recovery after cornerback Dale Harris ’17 forced Columbia’s punt-return man to cough up the ball in the second quarter.
But two special teams plays cost the Bulldogs in the second half, as both Yale and Columbia attempted trick plays that yielded opposite results. Down by three in the third quarter, Yale tried a fake punt run on fourth-and-three, but Oplinger was tackled one yard behind the line after taking the direct snap. Soon after, Columbia went up by 10 with a fake field goal attempt that led to Nizialek scoring a 13-yard rushing touchdown — his first career score at any level of organized football.
“We put that play in just this week,” Nizialek said. “They don’t bring a lot of pressure off the edges. We saw an opening there and [holder] Trevor [McDonagh] did a great job pitching me the ball.”
Nizialek also made a 40-yard field goal, a new career high.
Bagnoli, in his first season at the helm in Morningside Heights after becoming the winningest coach in Ivy League history at Penn, is one victory away from matching the win total of predecessor Pete Mangurian, who went a combined 3–27 in his three years coaching the Lions.
“I think [the win] is important for the next step as we try to gain credibility,” Bagnoli said. “We’re still striving to be a competitive football program … We can show progress in a lot of different ways, but we have to do it with a win-loss record.”
Yale plays at home next week, taking on Brown in the Bowl at 12:30 p.m. on Nov. 7.