The Columbia Lions own a 2-7 record heading into their final football game of the 2015 season, tonight against Brown. While the record still looks bad, it is significant: As just about every Columbia student knows, the Lions haven’t won a single football game in either of the past two seasons under then-head coach Pete Mangurian.
After the end of last season, the Lions brought in Al Bagnoli, the coach of Penn football who won nine Ivy League titles with the Quakers. Previously controversial senior defensive end Chad Washington returned as a team captain, and quarterback Skyler Mornhinweg transferred to the team from University of Florida.
Among these additions, the Lions also began running their Friday walkthrough practices on the Butler Lawns, in public view. Aside from breaking the losing streak—which lasted three more games into the current season—one of the Lions’ primary goals this season was to change the culture around the team and the Columbia football program in general.
Has any of it worked?
Yes, to an extent. Save for two games, the Lions have played consistently competitive football throughout the course of the season.
Led on the frontlines by Washington and seniors Hunter Little (5th year) and Toba Akinleye, the Lions have held the powerful offenses of Princeton and Dartmouth to just 10 and 13 points, respectively.
“Regardless of how the offense performs, the defense is gonna show up every game, and that’s how we have to do it,” Little said after a team practice. “I think really after Fordham it kinda set in that this is what we have to do day in and day out, and it’s not just in games, it’s in practice. We’ve gotta be the guys to set the tempo.”
In recent games, the Lions defense has held Yale to zero offensive points (Yale’s lone touchdown in a Columbia win came on a punt return), Ivy frontrunner Harvard to 24 points, and Cornell to just three. They allowed more than 24 points just twice: a 44-24 loss to Fordham and a 42-7 loss to Penn. In 2014, the Lions allowed at least 25 points in every game.
“Guys aren’t quitting, guys aren’t letting up, guys aren’t hanging up the towel… Before, it [the mentality] wasn’t there. And I mean, that’s no lie, it just wasn’t there,” Little added.
Tonight, Little will play his final football games in the Columbia uniform. So will defensive linemen Washington, Akinleye, J.D. Hurt and Niko Padilla, linebackers Max Keefe and Kevin McCarthy, and defensive backs Trevor Bell, Brandon Blackshear, Matthew Cahal and Travis Reim. All helped the Lions play inspired defense throughout the season. All hope to graduate from the football program with one more win.
“I think we set the standard as to what we expect, whereas before it was always up in the air…It’s just a next man up mentality; that’s how we’ve had it this year, that’s how it’ll be next year,” Little said.
On the offensive side of the ball, the Lions have also performed much better than in the previous two seasons. Led in tandem by quarterbacks Skyler Mornhinweg (Jr.) and Anders Hill (So.), the Lions have played competitively in many of this season’s matchups. A 26-3 drubbing of Wagner broke the 24-game losing streak. The Lions stole a victory against Yale with an impressive offense.
Even in losses against Fordham, Georgetown and Harvard, the Lions stayed competitive for most of the game; Columbia went score-for-score with Fordham until the fourth quarter, and lost by one possession, 24-16, to both Georgetown and Harvard. In 10 games in 2014, the Lions scored more than seven points just twice. The Lions’ lone competitive game in 2014 was a 30-27 loss to Cornell.
Both quarterbacks, Mornhinweg and Hill, have impressed in different ways, and Mornhinweg specifically showed an ability throughout the season to lead sustained drives towards scores or scoring opportunities while also finding spaces to run downfield. Senior running back Cameron Molina has also had a strong season—including a season- and career-high yardage total against Cornell—and the Lions lead opponents in rushing statistics.
But the offense also wastes many of its opportunities. The Lions have struggled greatly with turnovers, and a combination of 12 interceptions and eight lost fumbles have stalled promising drives throughout the season. Junior kicker Cameron Nizialek has also had trouble converting 4th downs into field goals, hitting only 7 of 13 on the season, though he’s earned accolades for his punting skills.
“We still have to continue to improve and try to create some more scoring opportunities and just try to capitalize on field position and convert when we have a chance to,” Bagnoli said of the offense.
Where Do They Go From Here?
“Nowhere to go but up,” senior running back Molina said. “It’s just more fun to be out here.” Molina echoes the sentiment of many around the football program: The Lions are on the rebound. Bagnoli has stressed that this it will take longer than one season to turn this team around, but that the culture is refreshed and much more positive.
“We’ve got to have a great offseason,” Bagnoli said, adding that the Lions will have to bring in a strong recruiting class to complement the returning team. Both QBs, Mornhinweg and Hill, will return, as will junior running back Alan Watson and junior wide receiver Cameron Dunn. The biggest holes to fill will be on defense, and especially on the defensive line. Because of the way recruiting happened coming into this season, Bagnoli said, he’ll have an opportunity to take a larger class. “We need depth at every position,” he added.
As for this season as an (almost) whole, the Lions “worked on a change of culture,” Molina said. They’ve proven to be competitive, hard-working, and fun to watch. The wins, at some point, will follow.
Starting with tonight, and a chance for seniors who haven’t won a game since freshman year to capture some final glory. Columbia, looking for their third win after two-plus years of losing, will try to finish the season strong against Brown.
The game is at 7:30 pm at Kraft Field. It can be seen on TV on NBCSN or heard on radio on WKCR 89.9 FM.
Celebrating for the first time in a while via Columbia University Athletics/Mike McLaughlin