Football's Division Title Hopes on the Line Against Columbia

Taylor Made
Timothy R. O'Meara

Senior Jack Stansell and junior Henry Taylor celebrate one of Ryan Atonellis’ two touchdown catches in the win over Dartmouth.

Last week, Harvard football extended a long winning streak against a conference opponent. This Saturday, the Crimson must do the same to remain relevant in the Ivy League title race.

Following a 25-22 victory over Dartmouth at home, Harvard (4-3, 2-2 Ivy) has now won 14 consecutive games against the Big Green. With three weeks left in the season, this win keeps the Crimson in the running for the Ancient Eight Crown, only one victory behind from the first place teams—Yale, Columbia, and Cornell.

A week after its most recent loss to Dartmouth, Harvard fell to Columbia as well—16-13, on the road. Since that 2003 contest, the Lions have yet to take down the Crimson again.

However, this edition of Columbia football (6-1, 3-1) is not what fans are accustomed to seeing. Under the leadership of longtime Penn coach Al Bagnoli, the Lions have clinched a winning record for the first time since 1996.

“Number one, you do have to give their previous staff credit,” Harvard coach Tim Murphy said. “They’ve got some really good senior football players that were recruited by a different staff. I think the rest is just due to Coach Bagnoli and his staff. First of all, he’s assembled an outstanding staff. Two, they said ‘We’re going to play great defense.’”

That “great defense” is a very unconventional style—in 2017, that is. Bagnoli and his staff decided to go back to basics, putting an extra man in the box to defend against the run and opting for man coverage on almost every play. Facing such a defense might complicate the Crimson’s run-pass option, which is typically more effective against common Ivy defenses.

“Well I think that for our league it is very counter-culture,” Murphy said. “Everybody these days is playing some type of multiple-coverage, middle-open defense where their outside linebacker is trying to be involved in run and pass. But they just said, ‘The heck with that. We’re going back to old-school.’

So far, it seems like Bagnoli’s system has been working. Through seven games, Columbia has outscored opponents by 43 points. Junior defensive back Ryan Gilbert paces the squad with 70 total tackles. Senior defensive back Landon Baty has two interceptions and two forced fumbles, while fellow defensive back Benjamin McKeighan has two picks of his own.

It is not just the Lions defense that gives opposing teams pause, Columbia utilizes a pass-heavy attack on offense guided by signal caller Anders Hill. The senior has 14 touchdowns and 1,838 yards in the air to supplement a 62.5 completion percentage.

Hill’s success is due, in part, to the two-headed monster lining up out wide. Sophomores Josh Wainwright and Ronald Smith II have combined to post 1089 receiving yards.

“We’re definitely looking at number 13 [Wainwright],” junior linebacker Charlie Walker said. “He’s supposed to be a really outstanding wide receiver, so we’ve got some things for him [so that he] never get[s] the ball ever again. We don’t see any problems that scare us whatsoever.”

Though the Lions have proven they belong in the conversation for the top Ivy team, many of their victories have been nail-biters. Four out of six wins have been by five points or fewer.

Opposite Columbia will be a Harvard unit that put up its first true statement victory of the season a week ago. The Crimson looks to ride this newfound momentum, especially to try to overcome a thin defensive corps.

On offense, it seems like the league has adjusted to the run-centric Harvard offense. For instance, the Crimson has relied less on stalwart running back Charlie Booker in recent weeks, especially in the red zone. The junior had four touchdowns through the first three games, but he has just two since then.

Instead, there has been more focus on the aerial attack, which is captained by the arm of freshman quarterback Jake Smith. Smith broke out for career highs in yards (268) against Princeton and touchdowns (three) against Dartmouth.

Unlike the Lions, Harvard mixes and matches its receivers and tight ends, having no true workhorse pass-catcher. Last week, senior tight end Ryan Antonellis hauled in two touchdowns, but he only advanced 21 yards on three catches.

“The game plan’s a little different this week,” Antonellis said. “We’re looking to run the ball more this week, so definitely not planning on having two touchdowns again. And we’re going to play more tight ends this week, so that’s definitely different.”

In a game which could dictate the fates of both teams, making adjustments and fine-tuning the game plan is crucial. But sometimes it’s just about who wants it more.

“[The Lions] are true believers,” Murphy said. “And there’s nothing tougher than playing against a team of true believers.”

—Staff writer Jack Stockless can be reached at jack.stockless@thecrimson.com.

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