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Lions Challenge No. 15 Football

By Aidan E. Tait, Contributing Writer

Columbia 16, Harvard 13.

No doubt people scanning Ivy League scores last year thought it a misprint at first, but a quick look at the stat sheet made the unbelievable seem unavoidable. Eighty-eight yards in the air for the Crimson. Two interceptions in the game’s final two minutes. A horrendous two-for-16 on third-down conversions.

And a Lions touchdown with less than two minutes remaining propelled Columbia to victory, effectively destroying any Ivy title hopes for the No. 15 Harvard football team (7-0, 4-0 Ivy).

“To throw the game away at the end of the game and to lose like that was pretty demoralizing,” said sophomore wide receiver Corey Mazza. “It left a bad taste in our mouth.”

That was a year ago, but the situation is similar. The Lions (1-6, 1-3) has only beaten Dartmouth in a game between winless teams. For the second consecutive season, a poor performance against the Big Green has raised concerns amongst the media and fans alike about the Crimson’s ability to execute. Most importantly, another injury threatens to alter Harvard’s season.

Last year, quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick sat out with a broken hand he aggravated against Dartmouth, while wide receivers James Harvey and Rodney Burns suffered game-ending injuries early in the first half. This time, the aerial assault remains intact, but the ground game is hurting.Specifically, sophomore Clifton Dawson is questionable to start tomorrow’s contest, slowed by a strained muscle in his side. If the league-leading rusher (134.3 yards per game) is on the sideline, the Crimson will have to look to the air for its offense.

The problem is, that’s not the best plan against Columbia. The visiting Lions may boast only one victory on the season, but an athletic secondary has held opponents to just 158.7 y.p.g. in the air. “We know they’re very athletic. They’ve got a veteran secondary that we played against last year, and they’re very fast and quick,” said senior wide receiver Brian Edwards.

That secondary has stymied offenses all season, holding Ivy power Penn to just 14 points in a 14-3 October loss. An overtime defeat against Princeton and a one-touchdown loss to Yale show the promise of the athletic Columbia, whose secondary has surrendered 200 yards passing just twice this season.

A healthy Fitzpatrick should easily eclipse last year’s passing totals in the first half, but the Harvard offense will have trouble finding its balance without the aid of Dawson. Opposing defenses have been forced to play honest in the secondary and keep an eye on Dawson, giving Fitzpatrick more time in the pocket. If Dawson is absent, the Lions’ defense will have the luxury to protect more thoroughly against the long ball, something they’ve worked on all season.

“We’re doing the right things,” Columbia coach Bob Shoop said. “We’re playing pretty good defense and we haven’t given up the number of big plays we gave up last year.”

The turnaround hasn’t yet appeared in the win-loss column for Columbia, but second-year coach Shoop has brought a new mentality to the perennial doormat. Four of the Lions’ losses in 2004 have come on the last drive of the game, and last week against Yale Columbia came six yards short of tying the game at the end of regulation.

The Lions’ secondary has helped cut down the game-busting plays Columbia suffered in 2003, but few Ivy offenses boast the type of arsenal that suits up weekly for the Crimson.

“I’m not sure that you stop Fitzy, Edwards and Mazza,” Shoop said. “Edwards seems to make a great play every week, whether it’s catching a pass, making a run off the reverse, throwing a pass, or making a big punt return, and Corey’s just so tall and quick.”

The Harvard offense will use that size to their advantage, as two Columbia corners are only 5’9. And with Dawson a lingering question mark, the Crimson has spent the week practicing spread formations that utilize four wide receivers.

Another 88-yard day seems unlikely for the Harvard offense, especially as it looks to shake off last week’s inefficient performance in Hanover. Like last year, a frustrated Crimson squad will look to beat up on the underdog Lions. This year, however, Harvard is still undefeated, and Columbia separates the Crimson from a showdown with unbeaten Ivy rival Penn.

“If we lose, we go one-out,” Mazza said. “It’s a must-win game.”

Both teams know what’s at stake, and Shoop has his players revved up with thoughts of a second consecutive upset against the highly-touted Crimson.

“You gotta love to compete, and you gotta love this challenge,” Shoop said. “We’re playing the 15th-ranked team in the country on television. If you can’t get excited for that, well, that’s the best reality TV there is.”

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