NEW YORK - After an impressive drive to open the second half, Columbia took a 9-3 lead, but Fordham scored 13 straight points to reclaim the Liberty Cup, 16-9, in a game marked by opportunistic defenses.
Columbia's defense was stout all day, adopting a bend, but no break mentality. That mentality was already evident in Fordham's opening drive.
"Defense played well every drive, except for one," said Norries Wilson, Patricia and Shepard Alexander Head Coach of Football. "On offense, we had an opportunity to win the game, but we gave that opportunity away."
After the Lions went three and out, Fordham gained possession at its own 22-yard line. On the second play from scrimmage, Xavier Martin ran 34 yards up the middle to move the Rams into Columbia territory. Fordham moved to first and goal from the Columbia eight but Alex Gross made a key stop of Ram quarterback Blake Wayne at the six and Ryan Murphy, in his first collegiate game, tipped a Wayne pass at the line of scrimmage to force the Rams into a 24-yard field goal to put Fordham ahead 3-0.
Fordham remained ahead 3-0 at the end of the first quarter, when Columbia began a grueling 12-play drive that lasted more than seven minutes. Switching to an option offense, Sean Brackett and Zack Kourouma combined to give the Lions a first down at the Columbia 23-yard line.
After a holding penalty wiped out a potential big play for the Lions, Brackett connected with Nico Gutierrez on a 39-yard reception into the Fordham zone. The Lions' impressive drive ultimately stalled on the Rams' 17, but Dean Perfetti booted a 34-yard field goal to tie the game at 3-3 heading into halftime.
Fordham received the opening kickoff in the second half and the Columbia defense pounced on an opportunity, causing the first turnover of the game. On a third and three from the Fordham 31, Wayne dropped a snap from the shotgun, Josh Martin leveled Wayne and Neil Schuster came in from his safety position to recover the fumble and set up excellent field position for the Lions.
Three plays later, Brackett found Mike Stephens in the corner of the end zone, as Stephens wrestled the ball away from a Fordham defender for the score, putting Columbia ahead 9-3. The ensuing extra point attempt was no good, keeping the Lions ahead by six.
On its next possession, Fordham again marched into Lion territory and got the ball within the Columbia 10-yard line but the Lions' defense again stiffened. Patrick Murray was forced into another short field goal, booting a 22-yarrder to cut the Columbia lead to 9-6 midway through the third quarter.
Fordham's next drive went into Columbia territory but Columbia forced another turnover. The Lions' defensive line forced Wayne to scramble and Josh Smith jarred the ball loose and Seyi Adebayo fell on the fumble to regain possession for Columbia.
Leading 9-6 to start the fourth quarter, Columbia's offense took possession at its own one-yard line after a Fordham punt pinned the Lions deep in their own territory.
Fordham took advantage of the field position battle, getting the ball back at the Columbia 40. Martin and Wayne combined to rush for 35 yards to put Fordham at first and goal at the Columbia five-yard line.
But the Lions' defense again came up big, stuffing the run as Fordham had a third and goal chance at the Columbia two. On a designed bootleg, Wayne tried to turn the corner but Matt Moretto made a big stop, stopping Wayne at the four-yard line, setting up another short field goal for Murray, who tied the game at 9-9.
Fordham's offense was quickly back on the field after Columbia went three and out, taking over at the Columbia 21 with 7:50 left in the game. The Rams converted a pair of third downs on the drive. The key play came at third and three from the Fordham 49.
Dropping back to pass, Wayne only saw covered receivers but was able to escape the pocket and dash to the sideline, picking up six yards to keep the drive alive. Six plays later, Wayne found Jason Caldwell for a 17-yard catch to the Columbia one-yard line. Darryl Whiting punched it in the end zone on the next play to put Fordham ahead, 16-9.
Needing a touchdown with less than five minutes left, Columbia started its final drive on its own 18. On third and nine from the 19, Brackett escaped tons of pressure and found Gutierrez streaking down the sideline for another big play of 39 yards into Fordham territory.
At the 42-yard line, Columbia moved to a fourth and one possession at the 33-yard line. On another Houdini-like effort, Brackett slinged a complete pass to Brian DeVeau, who made a diving grab to move the chains.
Two consecutive passes from Brackett to Mark Muston put the Lions at first and goal from the Fordham four-yard line. With the Lions knocking at the door with a minute left, the ensuring shotgun snap bounced away from Brackett and Fordham controlled the ball, sealing the win in the ninth Liberty Cup.
Muston's five receptions led a balanced wide receiver corps and Gutierrez caught three passes for 88 yards. Brackett finished with 13 of 21 attempts for 170 yards and a touchdown. Gross made 14 tackles and Schuster had 11 stops.
Xavier Martin rushed for 105 yards on 16 carries to pace Fordham. Jason Caldwell had seven catches for 61 yards.
Columbia will be back in action next Saturday, September 25 against Towson at Robert K. Kraft Field. Game time is 12:30 p.m.