Sports | Football

CU Defense Unbending But Breakable

Defenses are most vulnerable in the red zone, but Columbia’s defense has allowed just 13 trips to that area, the fewest in the Ivy League. 

“There’s a lot of factors that go into that,” head coach Al Bagnoli said. “We’ve been able to win first downs quite regularly and put people in somewhat predictable third-and-longs… so, it’s hard for them to get there.”

In last Saturday’s 9-7 win, the Big Green never once entered the red zone—or even came close. Dartmouth reached the Columbia 30-yard line with 27 seconds left, but missed a go-ahead field goal, ending the contest with just one touchdown.  

But that score—a 65-yard pass from Jack Heneghan to Hunter Hagdorn—is the type of explosive play that has plagued the Lions all year. 

While the Light Blue have only given up nine touchdowns in the red zone—the second fewest in the Ancient Eight behind conference 3-0 Harvard—they’re also relenting the second-highest percentage of non-red zone touchdowns at 47 percent. 

Most of those scores have come on so-called “big plays”—a term defined as run plays of more than 15 yards and pass plays of more than 25 yards.

Graphic by Tj Givens / Senior Staff Designer

Take Princeton’s second touchdown of their week against the Light Blue for example, where Tigers’ quarterback Chad Kanoff had ample time in the pocket to find wideout Trevor Osborne, who had just beaten his man down the seam. 

That sequence gave the Tigers a 13-6 lead en route to a 48-13 win. Of Princeton’s seven touchdown drives, four included a big play. Two of those non-big play drives were circumstantial—one began at the Columbia five-yard line, and another benefitted from two 15-yard personal foul penalties. 

Big plays also figured heavily in Columbia’s 35-10 loss to Penn, and one Quakers possession in the fourth quarter featured three of them.

It began with a handoff to Penn’s Justin Watson, who skirted the perimeter of the defense to gain 16 yards. On the ensuing play, the Lions guarded against any potential for another side run, but Penn quarterback Alek Torgersen found wide receiver Christian Pearson on a skinny corner for 30 yards. 

One big play set up the next, and two downs later, Penn running back Tre Solomon caught a pitch to gain 25 yards down the sideline. Torgersen then finished the drive with an easy eight-yard dump-off to Pearson for the score, making it 28-10 Penn. 

Beyond the scoreboard, big plays have translated into shorter drives for the Columbia defense, which means fewer opportunities to force turnovers. That helps to explain why the Lions have caused just four turnovers throughout their first six games, the lowest total in the Ancient Eight. 

But even with a negative turnover margin and a propensity for allowing big plays, the Lions’ defense is still their strength. It’s ranked 32nd in total defense out of 122 FCS teams, led by senior linebackers Gianmarco Rea, Keith Brady, and Christian Conway. 

The unit’s strength showed in the Lions’ first Homecoming win since 2000, which was also their first single-digit scoring win since 1996. And if it can limit its future opponents’ big play output, expect the defense to reach even more milestones.

austin.horn@columbiaspectator.com | @CUSpecSports

GIFs Courtesy of Tj Givens / Senior Staff Designer

Video Courtesy of Ivy League Digital Network

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