The long anticipated matchup between Dartmouth and Columbia for first place in the Ivy League and an inside track to the league title is finally upon us. But a funny thing happened on the way to this clash of unbeaten titans. Columbia lost. However, the game still puts what many people believe to be the two best teams in the Ivy League on the field to decide the direction of the title hunt.
Off to its best start since 1970 with a 7-0 record, Dartmouth sits atop the standings all alone with a 4-0 record in league play, one game ahead of the second place Lions, who bring a 3-1 league record (6-1 overall) into the contest.
A victory for the Big Green would virtually eliminate any hopes Columbia had for a championship. More importantly, a Dartmouth win would give them the opportunity to win the title outright at Brown next weekend.
The number 25 nationally ranked Big Green, who enter the contest nationally ranked for the first time since 1990, will be looking to continue their dominating play over Columbia that has shaped the history of this matchup.
Dartmouth brings in a 24-game unbeaten streak against the Lions dating back to 1971. Ironically, the Lions' last win in 1971 ended Dartmouth's 15-game unbeaten streak, a mark this Big Green squad will be trying to equal with a victory or tie this weekend. Dartmouth's dominance is even more pronounced in Hanover, where Columbia hasn't defeated the Big Green since 1945.
"We are definitely ready for Columbia and our players are excited to go out and shake off last week's performance," Head Coach John Lyons said.
Columbia's team is built much the same way as the Harvard squad that gave Dartmouth problems last weekend in its biggest scare of the season.
The Lions win the game on defense with a menacing pass defense but lack an offense capable of putting points on the scoreboard without the help of the defense. If the Big Green are able to get in the end zone early, then it could be a very long day for Columbia.
The Big Green offense will face another stiff challenge when they lineup against Columbia. The Lions' defense is the second-toughest defense in the nation, giving up only 210 yards a game. More importantly, their pass defense has caused opposing quarterbacks problems all year, intercepting 17 passes while allowing only one touchdown through the air.
Their defense is keyed by defensive end Marcellus Wiley, who has recorded four sacks and 13 tackles for losses on the year. Wiley also plays fullback occasionally on offense, rumbling for four touchdowns this year. According to Lyons, however, Columbia's entire front seven pose problems for the Big Green.
"Wiley is certainly among the best linemen we have seen this season, but he is just part of a great defense," Lyons said. "They also have an outstanding linebacker in Rory Wilfork who has been making plays for them all season long. We certainly haven't seen a defense this year with two players of their caliber."
Dartmouth's offense needs to have a better showing against Columbia than its lackluster performance against Harvard, which included numerous penalties and turnovers, uncharacteristic mistakes for this year's squad. Even after last week, Dartmouth is still among the national leaders, averaging 405 yards per game. Once again, and especially because of Columbia's pass defense, the Big Green will try to establish the run first in order to take pressure off of quarterback Jon Aljancic '97 and the rest of the passing game.
"We need to make sure that we don't turn the football over," Lyons said. "Last week when we were able to get some momentum, turnovers really killed us. For the most part this year we have been good in the turnover category, so it is important that we return to that kind of play because this defense forces more turnovers then any other defense we've faced. However, their defensive schemes aren't as confusing as Harvard's and more like the ones we have faced throughout the season."
If the Big Green can hold on to the football, then Columbia will need to find a way to score points. The Lions' offense is ranked 101 out of 116 teams in Division I-I AA. While their offense has struggled gaining yardage and scoring points, it has been efficient at running the ball and controlling the clock.
Sophomore tailback Ray Bivens has already set school records for most carries in a game and in a season, and the Lions have had the advantage in time of possession in six of their seven contests. Although he has been inconsistent, quarterback Bobby Thomason has kept defenses on their toes with his scrambling ability and has made some big plays throwing the ball. His favorite target all year has been wide receiver David Ramirez, Columbia's leading receiver.
"On offense, their main goal is to control the ball and the clock," Lyons said. "Bivens is the focal point and they will give him the ball up to 40 times a game. They want to establish the running game and they will do it out of multiple formations trying to spread the field, but Ramirez is a good receiver so we need to stop him as well."
Both teams have excelled in special teams play throughout the year. After struggling early on, Big Green placekicker Dave Regula '98 seems to have regained the form that made him a second-team all-Ivy selection last season, including connecting on a career-best 44-yard field goal to beat Harvard last weekend. Unfortunately for Regula, Columbia has terrorized opposing kickers, blocking eight field goal attempts on the year, including four by Wiley.
The teams will kickoff at 12:30 p.m. tomorrow at Memorial Field.