Battered Green face Columbia
This was supposed to be the get- well game for Dartmouth. With 2-5 Columbia coming into town for the final home game, the Big Green would get to toy with their fellow cellar-dwellers and regain some of the pride that has been lost over the past few weeks.
But then, injury was added to insult. Literally.
Instead of coming into the home stretch of the season healthy and fired up, the Big Green limp into this game both physically and mentally. Defensive standout Brad Verber '99 is out for the year with a torn groin muscle, with wideout Mike Poncy '00 joining him on the injured list with a leg injury. Five other starters are bruised and may not play. Combined with low confidence, morale is low at Memorial Field.
"I think with the way things have been going in the past few weeks, there is a real lack of confidence on this team," Head Coach John Lyons said. "In the past few years, we would make the big play to win games. This year, we are waiting for something bad to happen and expecting to lose."
Lyons is hoping the final home game of the year will lift the team's spirits. As expected, senior quarterback Mike Coffey will get the call in the final game of his career at Memorial Field. Coffey will direct an offense that is ranked last in the league in every offensive category.
Columbia's offense has struggled as well and the problems sound all too familiar: shaky quarterback play and a struggling running game. But Lyons thinks the Lions are better than they might appear.
"They are very good on defense and have some explosive running backs. They shutout Harvard in the opening game which proves how dangerous they can be."
Coffey gets the starting nod in the final home game of his career and that emotion should help Dartmouth get off to an early start. Freshman Brian Mann will come in on the fourth offensive series of the game and the coaches will decide after that who to play in the second half. Combined, the two signal-callers have six touchdowns and five interceptions between them.
The Lions will get a big boost from the return of starting quarterback Paris Childress, who missed the last five games due to injury. In that time, the Lions pass attack has been anemic, but Childress accounted for over 420 yards passing in his only two outings of the season.
The Big Green running game faces a stern test against a stingy Lions defense against the run. Reggie Belhomme '00 and Eric Davis '99 will try to improve on Dartmouth's average of 72 yards per game on the ground. Expect fullback Bob Bunn '01 to touch the ball at least eight times during the course of the game rushing and receiving.
Columbia's running backs have suffered a fate similar to that of the Big Green. Entering the year with two talented backs and high expectations, the Lions ground attack has faltered to date and has yet to produce a 100-yard rusher. Last week against Princeton, Columbia was held to minus-2 yards all afternoon, but tailbacks Norman Hayes and Jon Reese should have success against Dartmouth's league-worst rushing defense.
Damon Ferrara '98 had a career high six catches for 63 yards last week in the loss to Harvard. With Poncy out for the remainder of the year because of an injured knee, Coffey and Mann will be forced to rely on Ferrara and tight end Adam Young '99, who leads the team with 24 catches. Forest Wester '98 will replace the injured Poncy.
Because of their quarterback problems, the Lions have relied on all-Ivy tight end Bert Bondi throughout the season. He leads the Lions with 20 catches, one more than wide outs Mark Cannan and Armand Dawkins. Columbia's wide receivers have only caught one touchdown pass this year.
As if they weren't already struggling, the Big Green offensive front most likely will be without guard Caleb Moore '01 for the second straight week. Moore will be replaced by Matt Schroeder '00 on the left side of a line. However, no matter who is playing, Dartmouth needs to protect the quarterback so that the offense can throw the ball to keep the pressure off of the running game.
Opposing defenses have exposed Columbia's offensive line in recent weeks, as the Lions have given up 17 sacks in the past three games. This could be the break Dartmouth's defense has needed, as they can hope to get an effective pass rush with four rushers instead of being forced to blitz to apply pressure.
This is one of the two areas where Dartmouth is most banged up. Kyle Schroeder '00 and Brent Crombie '99 were injured last week against Harvard, but Lyons expects that both will be in the lineup tomorrow. The front four need to generate a stronger pass rush then they did against Harvard and Cornell in order to help out the depleted secondary.
The strength of Columbia's team is in their front seven, but even this area has been inconsistent for the Lions. Although the Lions tallied six sacks last week against Princeton, they recorded no sacks in the two games previous to that. Regardless, this is a quick and physical unit that should exploit Dartmouth's offensive front.
Jon Gibbs '99 and Steve Varney '00 have been great all season, but with the injuries to the defensive group will put added pressure on these two players, along with outside linebacker Kyle Rogers '99. These three have been around the ball all season long, but on Saturday, they must take their game to another level, forcing interceptions, fumbles and putting relentless pressure on Childress. Columbia's rushing defense is third in the league giving up 113 yards per game, and one of the top reasons is the play of their linebackers. Bolstered by a strong front four, the backers have been able to fill the gaps and stop ballcarriers. A strong day passing by Dartmouth could stretch this unit out though.
The loss of Verber is a tremendous blow to the Big Green, as Verber had been their top defensive and special teams player all season long. Tom Reusser '00 will now be forced to cover Armand Dawkins throughout the game, but more importantly, Dartmouth must try and protect Verber's replacement, Todd Jelen '01, with different formations and schemes. After Verber left the game last week, Harvard threw at Jelen's side on every passing opportunity.
Safety Chris Tillotson's play has dropped off this season but the Lions secondary has remained strong. Cornerback Avery Moseley leads the team with three interceptions and Columbia is giving up only 175 yards per game in the Ivy League. But, the Lions have also given up 10 touchdowns through the air.
In a battle of two struggling teams, the game may very well depend on the kicking game. Wayne Schlobohm '00 continues to be a sparkplug for Dartmouth punting the football and Alex Csizinksy '00 is solid but not spectacular. The return game must improve for the Big Green, especially on punt returns, where the Big Green are last in the league.
The Lions boast a terrific punter of their own in Ryan Kiernan, who is averaging 43 yards per punt, but Freshman place kicker Sam Warren has missed three of seven field goal attempts and the return game is weak.
Lyons said the key is for Dartmouth to get off to an early start to regain their confidence. The real battle in this game is Dartmouth's ability to protect the quarterback against Columbia's defensive front. If Coffey and Mann get time to throw the ball downfield, then the Big Green can take advantage of a Lions defense prone to giving up big plays.
Emotion will be the difference in this game as these are two evenly matched squads. Big Green seniors who have enjoyed the highs of winning do not want to go out losers in their final home game. As a result, the Big Green play their best game of the season and win easy.
Final Score: Big Green 23, Lions 13