The Playbook: What Went Wrong, Right For Lions Last Two Weeks
After putting up 31 points against an outclassed St. Francis (PA) in its season opener, Columbia has struggled to eke out double-digit points in both its second and third games of the season, falling 24-10 to Georgetown and then 21-10 to Princeton in the Ivy League conference opener. The drought marks Columbia’s lowest-scoring back to back games since losses to Yale and Harvard in 2017.
Columbia’s offense is clearly in a funk. What’s going wrong?
The Offensive Line
The offensive line is struggling mightily.
There simply hasn’t been any push for the run game. Columbia has averaged 0.9 and 1.1 yards per rush in its last two games, gaining fewer than 100 yards on the ground in both contests despite 35 and 32 rushing attempts against Georgetown and Princeton, respectively. That isn’t solely the fault of the offensive line (more on the game plan later), but it’s clear that the line hasn’t been getting a strong push on vertical rushing plays and hasn’t been forming a wall on lateral run calls. After netting 157 yards on the ground against St. Francis (PA), which itself was buoyed by sophomore Ryan Young’s 65-yard touchdown, Columbia’s run game has stagnated.
Georgetown and Princeton combined for 19 tackles for loss, including four sacks apiece, to the tune of 102 yards lost (Columbia, for comparison, has 8 TFL for 35 yards in that same time frame). Those eight sacks haven’t helped either.
Arguably the biggest problem for the offensive line, which has featured three new starters, is communication. Linemen have struggled to communicate and pass off blocking assignments against the pass rush. Georgetown in particular wreaked havoc against Columbia with simple defensive line stunts where linemen change their gap of attack in rushing the quarterback (e.g. a linemen opposite a tackle changes course to rush between guard and center).
On this play, junior Josh Bean’s (second!) crucial red-zone interception with Columbia trying to tie up the game, the lack of offensive line communication directly leads to the pick. Georgetown sets up in its customary 3-3-5 defensive formation (3 defensive linemen, 3 linebackers, 5 defensive backs). Khristian Tate (#44) lines up outside left tackle Josh Kaminski (#57) before slanting inside to rush the B gap (between tackle and guard). Middle linebacker Justin Fonteneaux (#45) blitzes the C gap, outside Kaminski, after his outside linebacker picks up running back Broderick Taylor, the target on the play (notice Ronald Smith’s pick on the linebacker).
Kaminski, with no tight end help, eyes Fonteneaux and tries to pick him up by passing off Tate, already slanting inside, to left guard Zach Minch (#62). But Minch, with Tate lined up outside Kaminski, initially double-teams the nose tackle, alongside the center, and he turns his head late. By the time he turns around to block Tate, the defensive lineman is past him, pressuring Bean, and gets his arm up to deflect Bean’s pass for yet another interception.
That’s one of 2.5 sacks for Princeton defensive end Samuel Wright. Lined up outside the right tackle, he stunts around two vertical pass rushers and sacks Bean as the line opens up. Unless Moses himself parted the line so perfectly, Columbia has only itself to blame.
Josh Bean had his best game of the season thus far against Princeton, throwing for 187 yards and a touchdown on 23-29 (79%) passing. Currently, however, he sits at just a 59% completion rate and has four interceptions to detract from the lone touchdown and 381 total passing yards.
When he has time (read: adequate protection) in the pocket, it’s clear why he’s so well liked by the coaching staff. A traditional pocket passer, Bean has a strong arm, the ability to extend plays, and experience. At his best, Bean represents a quarterback who can capitalize on Columbia’s skill position weapons and manage the game for all four quarters.
Here, he reads the Princeton cover-3 zone (three defensive backs deep) and targets Princeton’s Sultaan Shabazz (#12), who’s playing the intermediate zone along the sideline. Rather than throw a checkdown near the line of scrimmage to Josh Wainwright (#13), who motions left at the snap, he uses his arm strength to find deep man Ronald Smith (#24), just over a leaping Shabazz. Throws like these enable Wainwright and Smith to prove they belong among the Ivy League’s top wide receivers.
Other throws, however, aren’t as pretty. Bean is by no means a perfect quarterback. He’s not as mobile as sophomore Ty Lenhart, his main competition. But it’s his drawbacks as a pocket passer that hold him back. Bean often stares down his intended target from the get-go. He has a poor habit of throwing off his back foot, which has directly contributed to multiple interceptions as he tries to strong-arm a pass over the middle.
No Ivy League quarterback is perfect. A lot of bad habits stem from a lack of time in the pocket, which, as discussed above, is certainly an issue. Quarterbacks inevitably struggle under pressure. The offensive game plan has done a solid job counteracting Bean’s quick window. Most of Columbia’s passing attack falls in the short-to-intermediate range, with hitch routes and wide receiver screens aplenty.
But a game plan that calls for runs almost exclusively out of the shotgun has its drawbacks. A speedster like running back Dante Miller has little time to gather momentum for a run when he takes a handoff, flat-footed, from beside the quarterback. A Josh Bean play-action fake out of the shotgun is less successful than a play action fake from under center, since the defense worries less about Bean running and can continue to key in on the pass.
It isn’t all doom and gloom. The defense has looked strong, allowing under 20 points per game (and nearly had a defensive touchdown when safety Ben Mathiasmeier jumped an out route at Princeton, only to drop the pick). Ronald Smith has been very good, hauling in 15 catches for 203 yards. Smith, elusive sophomore Mike Roussos, and many of the players who helped Columbia to 23.1 points per game last season are back in the fold. The pieces are there; they just need to come together.
The offense has to start roaring.
GIFs by Zach Miller / Editor-in-Chief, Video courtesy of Columbia Athletics / ESPN+.