If you’re a fan of long, sustained drives then Friday night’s Ivy League matchup between Columbia and Princeton was the game for you; at least initially. By the time the first quarter came to a close, both the Lions and the Tigers each only held the ball once. Princeton, which led 3-0 after the first 15 minutes, started their night with a 15-play march that yielded a field goal. Visiting Columbia matched that with a 18-play series that ate up nearly eight minutes but had nothing to show for it after a missed field goal by Hugo Merry.
Those two drives, as it turned out, would be some of the most offense seen from either squad all night.
The defensive pace picked up in the second quarter as did the New Jersey rain. Tigers quarterback Blake Stenstrom laced a 47-yard pass to receiver A.J. Barber on the first snap of their second possession and helped set up a second field goal try. Jeffrey Sexton, who connected on a 28-yard kick earlier in the game, couldn’t hit from 38 and the score remained 3-0.
Princeton’s defense stepped up as the rain continued to pour and forced a fast three and out but once more their offense sputtered and couldn’t produce anything. Columbia DB Ethan Hebb flaked out and applied just enough pressure to force an errant punt; the spark that appeared to finally ignite the Lions.
With excellent starting field possession, Columbia’s rushing attack started to take over; a surprising sight against the nation’s second-best run defense. Malcon Terry III and Joey Giorgi sliced their way through the normally-stout Princeton defense and got the Lions down inside the five-yard line. On 4th and short, Lions quarterback Caden Bell ran to the outside but was stopped for no gain. With less than four minutes until the break, the defenses were winning out. It was still 3-0.
After forcing yet another punt, Columbia made the first big error of the night when Carter McFadden fumbled the ball on the return. Princeton’s freshman linebacker Tyler Morris fell on it and there was once more a breath of life for the home team.
The Lions defense stiffened up again, though, and made the Tigers punt again. The 3-0 score held firm at halftime in what was turning into a defensive struggle. Each team had under 100 rushing yards as they headed into the locker room and there were five combined punts.
The slog continued for both teams into the third quarter. The Lions got two chances to start the second half thanks to a muffed punt and still they couldn’t make anything happen. Both the weather and the Tigers defense was rendering Bell and company silent. Giorgi couldn’t haul in a pass on 3rd and 7 and, for the seventh time of the night, there was a punt.
The first touchdown of the evening came just one play later and it, as was par for the course, it came via defense. Columbia defensive lineman Justin Townsend leapt up to get his hand on a Stenstrom pass and got a little more. Townsend snagged the ball out of the air and stepped one yards into the end zone, much to the dismay of the Princeton fans. The Lions led for the first time, 7-3.
Princeton tried to respond two drives later by finally stringing together another long excursion. Stenstrom rumbled for a big first down on 4th and 4 inside Columbia territory to pick up a big first down, the team’s first fourth down conversion of the season. Even with that, however, the Tigers petered out when it mattered. Three quarters in and they only had three points.
The fourth quarter finally saw Princeton’s finally come alive. Another extended drive, that saw the Tigers pick up three fourth downs, chewed up over 10 minutes. Stenstrom completed clutch pass after clutch pass on the 20-play march and Columbia’s defense, which had been great all game, finally faltered. On 4th and goal from the one-yard line, John Volker pushed his way over the goal line, rewarding the fans that braved the weather with a late 10-7 lead.
The Tigers defense preserved the hard-fought win in the final two minutes. Defensive lineman Bakari Edwards picked up his fourth sack of the season when he brought down Bell, resulting in a 4th and long. The Lions were able to convert but ultimately it didn’t matter. Bell fumbled while under pressure a few plays later sealing the game.
In total, the Tigers punted six times but when they needed it most, Stenstrom put the team on his back and delivered. He finished his night completing 26 of 43 passes for 191 yards. He also rushed for 30 yards to tie for the team lead with Ja’Derris Carr. The defense held Columbia to just 71 passing yards and 12 first downs. More importantly, Princeton dominated the time of possession battle, retaining possession for over 35 minutes.
As gallant as their effort was, the Lions defense couldn’t hold on their last outing and it was the difference. Bell completed 11 passes Giorgi carried it 16 times but the duo still only accounted for 132 yards. For the second straight year, Columbia falls to Princeton and fails to score an offensive touchdown in doing so.
The Tigers (2-1, 1-0 Ivy League) will be home again next weekend to take on Lafayette. The Lions (1-2, 0-1 Ivy League) will welcome Marist next Saturday.