Shaker’s Ryan Griffin, right, enters the end zone untouched for a third-quarter touchdown in last Friday’s home opener against Columbia. The Blue Bison rallied for a 32-28 victory over the Blue Devils.
Section II football fans might not have been aware of how good Columbia had become prior to Friday night's game against Shaker, but the Blue Bison knew.
Columbia gave Shaker everything it could handle and then some in Friday night's Liberty Division season opener in Latham before the Blue Bison prevailed 32-28.
Columbia (0-1) struggled to earn wins last season, but with several returning players on both sides of the ball, the Blue Devils looked more competitive in their loss to Shaker (1-0) than they did during most of 2010. Columbia led 20-6 at one point in the first half and had a 28-25 advantage in the fourth quarter until Shaker tailback Tyler Oppelt scored on a 14-yard run with 1:19 left in the game.
"We knew they were going to come out real strong, fast and physical," said Shaker junior running back/linebacker Ryan Griffin. "We just had to adjust to it."
"My hat's off to Columbia. They're a great team," said Shaker coach Greg Sheeler. "I don't look at it as our defense got torched. They're a well-coached team, and they are going to get some wins this season."
Columbia used its ground game to build its two-touchdown lead in the first half. The combination of junior tailback Kenny Mathieu hitting the outside corners and junior tailback Christopher Smith running up the middle helped the Blue Devils take control of the field and the clock. Senior quarterback John Stanley helped the cause with a pair of touchdown runs.
Shaker's offense came alive late in the second quarter when junior quarterback Chris Landers connected with senior wideout Adrian Valentino on a 65-yard touchdown pass. A blocked field goal by Shaker as time expired in the first half helped the Blue Bison enter the locker room with only a 20-12 deficit.
That sequence of events proved to be a harbinger of what was to come in the second half. Shaker's offense moved the ball at will on Columbia's defense, while the Bison defense made a pair of critical plays to turn the tide.
Junior running back Kenny Jackson got things going for Shaker right out of the gate following halftime. Jackson took the handoff from Landers on the first play from scrimmage and raced 65 yards for a touchdown. Griffin added the extra point to pull the Bison within a point at 20-19.
Shaker's next offensive series looked like it was going to stall deep in its own end of the field after a fumble and a penalty drove it back. But Griffin came to the rescue with a long run to midfield, and he capped the drive a short time later with a 4-yard touchdown run to put the Bison ahead 25-20. It was Shaker's first lead of the game.
Columbia's offense started moving the ball on the ensuing series, but it ended when Shaker's defense forced Connor Ramon to fumble the ball inside Bison territory after catching a long pass from Stanley. Though it didn't result in any points for Shaker, it did allow the Bison to pin Columbia deep in its own territory following a long punt by Griffin that was downed at the 1-yard line.
The Blue Devils didn't fold when faced with the prospect of going the length of the field for a touchdown. Instead, Stanley took matters into his own hands with a long run for a first down near midfield and two pinpoint throws to wide receiver Anthony Maney to get his team deep into Shaker territory. Smith ended the series with a 5-yard touchdown run, and Stanley added a two-point conversion run to give Columbia a 28-25 lead with less than five minutes left in the fourth quarter.
Now, it was Shaker's turn to respond. A pass interference call against Columbia's defense got the Bison deep into Blue Devil territory. Two plays later, Oppelt took the handoff from Landers, swept left and found a seam down the sideline for the go-ahead touchdown.
Columbia got the ball back with time for one more drive, but a penalty and consecutive incomplete passes stalled the Blue Devils' final series at their own 33-yard line.
"It was a game of character," said Sheeler. "It tested our character, and I'm very pleased with how we responded."
Shaker returns to action Friday, Sept. 9, against crosstown rival Colonie with the lessons from its game against Columbia etched in its memory.