Quarterbacks Skyler Mornhinweg and Anders Hill never looked comfortable in a 13-9 loss on Saturday to St. Francis. While a new, up-tempo offense may be partially to blame, Columbia’s two quarterbacks faced significant pressure from St. Francis on nearly 50 percent of their passing attempts.
St. Francis finished with five sacks on the afternoon, but Mornhinweg was hurried on eight more throws and took three hits after releasing the football. On several other dropbacks, the senior quarterback was flushed out of the pocket and forced to scramble when trying to find an open receiver.
Columbia’s offensive line actually handled most of its one-on-one matchups, but the issue was picking up blitzes. St. Francis showed a variety of defensive looks, opting to bring pressure from a number of different positions.
“We’re an attacking defense,” St. Francis head coach Chris Villarrial said. “We just tried to disrupt that to hurry up.”
The result was a steady stream of free rushers, and while head coach Al Bagnoli had mentioned the hyper-aggressive scheme earlier last week, the Lions struggled to find a solution.
“They blitz over 50 percent of the time,” Bagnoli said last Tuesday. “Hopefully it’s one of those feast or famine [situations]. They get us a couple of plays, but we’re able to hit a couple of home runs.”
Especially in the first half, Columbia failed to capitalize on any of those “home run” plays. With little time to operate, offensive coordinator Mark Fabish repeatedly dialed up screens and read-option running plays to bolster the Lions’ ground attack. Meanwhile, Mornhinweg completed only one pass longer than two yards, unable to establish any rhythm with throws down the field.
Columbia’s best opportunity came towards the end of the first quarter, when first-year wide receiver Josh Wainwright lined up in the backfield. He accelerated past his man down the far sideline deep in St. Francis territory, and Mornhinweg delivered the ball on time into the arms of the first-year. But late pressure caused a slightly underthrown ball from the senior quarterback, and Wainwright was unable to haul it in.
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Mornhinweg remained under duress for the second quarter, committing his first turnover of the afternoon on a third-and-six from the St. Francis 35-yard line. The Red Flash called up a blitz off the left edge, and Mornhinweg was blindsided midway through his release, sending the ball straight up into the air for an easy interception.
His next turnover was even more costly, coming just as the Lions’ read-option attack began to find some success. Columbia marched all the way to the five-yard line before Mornhinweg was met in the backfield by St. Francis defensive lineman Da’Jon Lee and fumbled.
“They came with what we thought they’d come with,” Mornhinweg said. “We just [have] to execute each play as the game moves along. We were hitting those plays, but there’s a couple breakdowns every once in awhile.”
In the second half, Columbia’s offensive line and running backs responded better to the waves of rushers, even as St. Francis continued the defensive onslaught. Relative to the first half, Mornhinweg dropped back more than twice as often in the second half but faced pressure on just 27 percent of snaps.
That improvement up-front paid dividends, and the senior quarterback seized the opportunity, finding receivers on a number of intermediate crossing routes. While Mornhinweg finished just 10-for-22 through the air in the second half, he quadrupled his yards from the first half. Six of his 10 completions also went for 10 yards or more.
But the Lions couldn’t take advantage and failed to find the endzone until the final 10 seconds of the game when Mornhinweg finally connected with senior wide receiver Cameron Dunn for a three-yard touchdown.
The Lions then attempted an onside kick, but St. Francis recovered with seconds remaining to seal the game, capping a frustrating debut for Columbia’s new-look offense.
“It was choppy,” Bagnoli said of the offensive performance. “It’s a combination of having a new offense and playing some young kids, so there were some miscues... When you change things and you’re bringing in new kids, you’re going to have to live with some growing pains.”