Footballers look to shut Brown down in Providence

by Elliot Olshansky | 11/14/03 6:00am

Anyone in need of proof of the old adage that defense wins football games need look no further than Dartmouth's 26-17 win over Cornell last Saturday at Memorial Field.

In that game, two of Dartmouth's four touchdowns were scored on drives set up by interceptions. Cornerback Mike Ribero '06 picked off a pass at the end of the first quarter to set up Dartmouth's 72-yard go-ahead touchdown march, and strong safety Phil Frost '04 had an interception in the fourth quarter that led to an easy touchdown from the Cornell 38-yard line. Also, defensive end Derham Cato '05 effectively ended the game when he forced Cornell quarterback D.J. Busch to fumble the ball on Cornell's last possession of the game.

Dartmouth's defense helped the Big Green (4-4, 3-2 Ivy) take control in a hard-fought game made more difficult by tough playing conditions. This Saturday, the Big Green defense faces a much sterner test, as Dartmouth travels to Providence to take on Brown. The Bears (3-5, 2-3 Ivy) have had an up-and-down year, losing four in a row after beating Albany to open the season. However, the Brown offense is on a roll, after the Bears won a 55-44 shootout with Yale last week in New Haven.

"It seems that Brown has really started to get hot," Big Green head coach John Lyons said yesterday. "It seems that both teams [in the Brown-Yale game] made a lot of big plays. Brown, I don't think, prior to that, had been scoring all that many points, but they got hot."

Cooling off the Bears has the potential to be a tough task for the Big Green. While Brown's scoring average of 21.9 points per game isn't especially impressive, the Bears do have the Ivy League rushing leader in sophomore running back Nick Hartigan. After seeing action in only one game last year, Hartigan has racked 1103 yards on 201 carries this season, including a 214-yard performance in Brown's 24-21 loss to Fordham. "We've got to limit his success," Lyons said of Hartigan, "and try not to give up big runs."

The main key to stopping the Bears, however, will be stopping senior quarterback Kyle Slager. While Slager has failed to break 200 passing yards in five games this season, he has thrown for 320 or more yards in each of the other three. Against Yale, Slager completed 32 of his 48 passes for 376 yards and five touchdowns. "I think he looked real comfortable against Yale," Lyons said, "when he knew exactly what he was getting coverage-wise, and I think we've got to change up our coverages and show him different looks. And obviously, our guys in the secondary have to play well."

"Playing well" has not been a problem for the Big Green secondary over the last four weeks, especially for Ribero. The 5'10" Californian is second in the Ivy League with four interceptions, including two picks in Dartmouth's 30-16 win at Harvard on Nov. 1.

"As you play, and you start making good plays, you become more confident in your abilities to make more of them," Lyons said of Ribero's emergence in the secondary. "Mike is a not real tall, but he's really quick, he's got real good feet, and he's a physical player for someone his size. He's played well for us, and he's made some big interceptions, and he's going to keep getting better and better."

Like Lyons, Ribero attributes his success this season to his gathering of experience at cornerback, after playing as a safety in high school. "It took a while," Ribero said of the transition. "It was tough last year, getting used to techniques, and just a different style of play that you use at corner. This year, as the year's gone on, I've felt more and more comfortable playing corner, being able to cover men a lot better."

Ribero and the Dartmouth secondary will have a tough man to cover next week in Brown wide receiver Lonnie Hill. The 6'4" Hill is coming off of a career day against Yale, as the Salem, Mass. native caught 13 passes for 183 yards and four touchdowns. It will be up to Ribero and the Dartmouth secondary to stop a repeat performance tomorrow. Ribero said of the challenge, "Being only 5'10", and this guy will have five or six inches on me, I just try to play real physical, push him around a little bit. Maybe if they throw a deep ball the safety will come over and help."

The Dartmouth defense has shown a repeated ability to make the necessary adjustments over the course of the Big Green's four-game winning streak, the team's first since the 1997 season. Since allowing Colgate, UNH, Penn, and Yale an average of 37 points a game to open the season, the Big Green defense has allowed only 17 points a game. "We've finally started coming together and playing as one," said Ribero, "as opposed to before, when not everyone was on the same page."

Being on the same page now speaks well for the future, as only three of Dartmouth's defensive starters will graduate in June. "Right now, we want to concentrate on finishing this season and playing well," Ribero said. "But, in terms of the future, we feel that our potential is unlimited."

Tomorrow, in Providence, the Big Green defense will look to show Brown some of that potential, when the teams kick off at 12:30 p.m. at Brown Stadium.