Football seeks to maintain focus against struggling Columbia

by Alexander Agadjanian | 10/22/15 6:30pm

10.23.15.sports.football_Weijia.Tang_
Despite a few mishaps and errors against Central Connecticut State University, Darttmouth still won in dominant fashion.
Source: Weijia Tang/The Dartmouth Staff

In each and every week of the 2015 season, the football team has clung to the mentality of treating each game equally and applying its focus only to the game ahead. No juncture in the team’s schedule will challenge that mindset more than the current one. With the game of the 2015 Ivy League season against Harvard University looming on the horizon, the Big Green (5-0, 2-0 Ivy) must first take care of visiting Columbia University (1-4, 0-2 Ivy) as it permanently returns to conference play this Saturday.

For the first time since its last League championship-winning season in 1996, the Big Green jumped into the FCS Top 25 rankings in the past week, coming in at 25th in the country. Ten spots ahead is Harvard, who has also maintained an undefeated mark this season and blown out opposing teams, and the team that will take on the Big Green on Oct. 30. That makes this Saturday’s contest against one of the worst conference teams in Columbia the quintessential “trap game” — a game right before a tough opponent on the schedule, and thus against a team Dartmouth may overlook.

Although excitement for the trip to Cambridge, Massachusetts, is already palpable, Kyle Bramble ’16 reiterated the need to not look too far ahead.

“Our problem last week [was] lack of focus,” Bramble said. “This week, the coaches are going to put a lot of emphasis on concentrating on the week that we’re in. A lot of guys are starting to get excited about the week after against Harvard. But all 10 games count, and we don’t want to screw it up by losing to a team like Columbia.”

Folarin Orimolade ’17, who leads the team with five sacks this season, echoed his teammate’s comments.

“It’s the Ivy League playoff,” the linebacker said. “We take it one week at a time. Columbia is a playoff game, too. In the Ivy League, you lose one, and you’re out of the playoffs basically. Especially this year, I think that’s how it’s going to be. So we just have to take it one game at a time.”

On offense, the Lions have been one of the worst teams in the conference in 2015. As a team, Columbia has garnered a League-worst 4.3 yards per play, and averaged 15.6 points per game, second-worst in the conference. Through its first five games this year, the team has been outscored by an average of nine points in each contest.

Leading the Columbia unit, quarterback Skyler Mornhinweg is in the midst of his first season with the program after transferring from the University of Florida — where he played the final three games of the Gators’ 2013 season — this past summer. The junior has so far struggled in Ivy League play, posting a 1:6 touchdown to interception ratio and exceeding the 200-yard mark only once this season, though adding 145 yards and three scores on the ground.

Running back Cameron Molina, who grabbed second-team All-Ivy honors in 2014, has totaled 287 total rushing yards paired with three touchdowns and represents the Lions’ biggest offensive threat. Running behind an experienced offensive line has aided Molina, whom Orimolade views as one of the key parts of Dartmouth’s preparations for Saturday.

“The running back is really quick,” Orimolade added. “He’s probably the shiftiest running back we’ve faced so far. He’s a good size, like 200 pounds, so physical, and he’s going to be a good challenge for us.”

On the other side of the ball, Columbia has been a bit stronger, yielding 5.4 yards per play which puts them at fourth in the conference. While they don’t force too many turnovers and tend not to send as many blitzes, the team’s defense near the line of scrimmage — led by 2014 second-team All-Ivy honoree Niko Padilla at defensive lineman — has been formidable. Dartmouth head coach Buddy Teevens noted this aspect would constitute one of the tougher parts of facing Columbia.

“They’ve got a very solid defensive front, probably as good as we’ve seen,” Teevens said. “They’ll play man and zone [defenses] in combination. They’ve not been a huge pressure team, they’re kind of the bend but don’t break mindset… They’ve allowed some big plays on defense, and we’ve had the benefit of making some big plays on offense.”

Starting with Saturday’s game against Columbia, the Big Green will hope to rebound from an uneven offensive performance against Central Connecticut State University one week ago and return to the bountiful success discovered in the three games before. Teevens points to consistency throughout the game as essential to getting back to their previous level of play.

“The problem offensively was that we were inconsistent,” Teevens said. “A missed block, a missed read, a missed catch, a penalty [all] set us back with regularity in the first half. [In] the second half, we kind of corrected it and played much better football.”

Despite putting up good yardage and scoring more than 30 points for the fifth straight game, the Big Green offense in particular seemed off kilter and didn’t establish its usual excellent play until later in the game. Accordingly, Teevens notes that the display against CCSU did not meet the team’s standards.

“Our expectation of our offense is quite high, and the expectation of our players is quite high as well,“ Teevens said. “And I would say that was not our A-plus performance for the year. We’ve had better, and I expect to have better as we progress through the season.”

Moreover, in Bramble’s eyes, the team lacked the focus it always hopes to maintain throughout the year — whether in or out of conference play.

“We were in the middle of midterms. It was a non-conference game,” Bramble said. “We knew going into that game that we are better players than they are, I think that kind of just got to people’s heads. I think that made everyone play a little more sloppy than we should’ve been playing. We still won by quite a bit and we had a few big plays, but we’re going to have to do a lot better against the conference teams.”

Particularly visible in the first half against CCSU, Dartmouth again saw its rhythm plagued by penalties, both on offense and defense. The Big Green had more penalties than its opponent, with seven calls costing 65 yards, four of which occurred during the opening quarter that also included a holding penalty that was declined. For the year, the team has the second-most total penalties that have gone for the third-most yardage in the Ivy League. Taken as a whole, Teevens considers this tendency of his team crucial to address.

“That’s an ongoing concern,“ Teevens said. “They’re aggressive penalties, they’re not cheap personal fouls or that kind of thing. But they’re more of trying to do a little bit more than we’re capable of doing. You get a holding penalty, and those just set your consistency, your flow is disrupted. And we did that just too often in the first half.”

On the defensive end, Dartmouth prolonged its overpowering and consistent stretch of play to open 2015 against CCSU. Snatching two interceptions, the Big Green preserved a +9 turnover margin on the season, which has also seen 15 sacks recorded by the unit.

In allowing a mere 9.4 points per game, the Big Green rank second in the Ivy League only to Harvard, and third in the entire FCS. According to per play statistics, however, Dartmouth stands as a better defense than Harvard, yielding just 3.8 yards per opposing play to the Crimson’s 4.1. Orimolade credits the success to the coalescence of every portion of the defense.

“We’ve been watching a lot of film and finding ways to get to the quarterback with only three, four or five people,” Orimolade said. “It’s really helped our defensive backs, and our [defensive backs] have been helping us too playing great defense in the back end. The linebackers are flying all over the field. So everything is just coming together, making it really smooth for the whole team.”