Columbia Has Longed for a Win Like This One, 28-24

  • September 30, 2017

BY JAY GREENBERG

Down Mark Fossati, their captain and best linebacker, plus maybe their second-pass rusher in Khalil Bryant, the Tigers were not going to hold onto a three-point lead by giving Columbia passing room underneath. Not with 2:48 to go, not after the Lions had just converted from a second-and-20, and certainly not the way their receivers had created separation for much of the day.

“We didn’t get enough pressure with a four-man rush, had to mix some pressure in,” said Bob Surace.

So on third-and-11 at the Columbia 37, Princeton brought the house and the Lions beat it; Ronald Smith II catching yet another slant that had riddled Princeton at too many key times and leaving cornerback Chance Melancon as the only Tiger with a shot. He dove, missed, and Smith was gone, along with Princeton’s chance to run the table in the Ivy League for the first time since 1964.

It was three years even before that when Columbia last won the title, and at least since 1997, when the Lions started 6-0, that they enjoyed a win that probably meant as much to their program as Saturday’s by 28-24 on Powers Field at Princeton Stadium.

The Tigers, getting the ball back with just 66 seconds to work with–and needing a touchdown– got as far as the Columbia 37 when a pressured Chad Kanoff didn’t get enough on a throwaway attempt and Benjamin McKeighan sealed the deal with the Lions’ third interception of the afternoon, setting off a celebration decades in the making.

“We were able to go into the defending Ivy Champions back yard and win,” said Coach Al Bagnoli. “We battled it out and luckily for us we made one more play than they did.

“That goes to the maturity we are gaining and the confidence we are gaining that we can win.”

If not for their 13 penalties turning into 139 yards of waste, the Lions really might have won earlier, but that’s not say easier. Neither line budged the other much. Princeton’s game-opening 10-play, 80-yard touchdown drive culminating in a nine-yard catch by a wide-open Jesper Horsted was not a portent of what was to come.

The Tigers big and athletic receiving corps had to go into the air to catch most everything they managed, including Horsted’s second touchdown on a 12-yard pass in the second quarter, and Stephen Carlson’s equally contested grab in the end zone of a 27-yarder from Chad Kanoff with 2:48 to play.

And though it took only two plays to get that one into the end zone following a Tiger Bech 18-yard punt return, it would be a stretch to call even that touchdown, which put the Tigers into the lead 24-21, a quick strike. The score came on the third-Princeton fourth-quarter drive deep into Columbia territory-and the only successful one by a team that has owned the red zone for two seasons

On the first, the Lions were not fooled when goalline quarterback Kevin Davidson took one step forward, then one step back, and tried to hit Carlson on a fourth-and-three.  On the next, Davidson had the ball pried out of his hands by Landon Baty at the two.

Twice having to counterpunch their way off the goalline, the Lions were reluctant to open it up as the Tigers, who during the game lost Fossati and and maybe their purest pass-rushing specialist in Khalil Bryant, continued to stuff the run. So Bech’s return put them in business for the touchdown to Carlson, who caught the ball before Tyler Campbell turned around to finally put Princeton on top.

Ultimately, the Tigers scored too early. The Lions had three times outs and only needed a field goal. As it turned out, they required neither as quarterback Anders Hill led Smith perfectly and, thanks to the blitz, there wasn’t a safety in sight.

“It was a great call for by our offensive coordinator, but the offensive line also did a good job of absorbing an all-out, maximum blitz,” said Bagnoli. “The quarterback hung in there fearlessly, knowing he was going to get hit and delivered it perfectly.”

Faster than the pony express Smith II was gone, delivering the news that in the third year of Bagnoli’s time at Columbia, the Lions, with two senior-laden lines and two Bagnoli recruiting classes making plays, already have as good a chance to win this wide-open league as any team.

“That’s a team of seniors,” said Surace.  “Our players took that seriously, even if the media didn’t.

“We are not better than that team. We have a lot of freshmen out there playing.  It’s my fault because we made some mistakes of discipline that I have to correct. We have to be more exact.”

Safety Ben Ellis and cornerback T.J. Wall, both first-year starters, had an apparent miscommunication on Hill’s 46-yard touchdown throw to a wide open Smith that tied the game 7-7.  Mike Wagner, who had two sacks and another tackle for a loss, couldn’t hold the edge on Thomas Tanner’s 11-yard second-quarter touchdown run that tied the score at 14.

But the shorthanded Princeton defense, holding Columbia to just 1.3 yards per their 38 attempts, kept getting the ball back and keeping the Tigers alive, as they certainly remain so early in the Ivy race.

Dartmouth’s win at Penn on the last play on Friday night, and Columbia’s see-saw victory were early announcements that there are going to be a lot of games that come down to one play and at least six teams that are capable of making it.

“Top to bottom the league is very strong,” said Surace.  “ We are missing six important players from our defense last year.

“Anyone who thinks that we are the most talented team is crazy.”

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