As it seems it was destined from the first day of the season, the Ontario university football championship will be contested by the league’s two most bitter rivals and its two greatest quarterbacks. On Saturday, the Western Mustangs, led by all-time CIS leading passer Michael Faulds, will travel to Kingston to do battle with Queen’s Gaels, led by #2 all-time quarterback Danny Brannagan.
You can use any one of a number of clichés to describe this matchup. You could refer to it as Fire vs. Ice. You could call it The Unstoppable Force vs. The Immovable Object. Anyway you put it, both teams’ fans refer to it as destiny. Both starting quarterbacks are in their final year of eligibility so while the winner will move one step closer to the national championship game, the loser will hang up his cleats forever. Western fans would tell you that a three-peat is a given for the twice-defending Yates Cup champions. Queen’s supporters say that Western’s time is up and Queen’s will get their hands on a trophy they should have won last season.
Recent history would seem to favour the Gaels. Over the last five years, these two rivals have met six times with Queen’s holding the edge in the Brannagan/Faulds career series 4-2. The home team has won ever game except the pair of games in 2007. That was also the year that they met for the only time in the post-season with Western taking a road win in OUA quarter-finals.
To better preview this year’s Yates Cup game, it’s time to escape the history surrounding these teams. Let’s break down these two teams.
This is where you would think that these two teams are strongest. When healthy, these are two of the best that have ever played in the CIS and there isn’t much to choose between the two. However, Michael Faulds is far from healthy. His left knee is in such rough shape that it gave out on him early in last week’s OUA semi-final. After that, he was rendered largely immobile. However, with targets like Trevail, Bull, Bellamy, Pasic, and Svec, Faulds never had to look or move far to find a target to haul in a bullet. He regained mobility later in the game but he was basically throwing rockets with only his right arm. Unfortunately for Golden Hawks fans, the much ballyhooed Laurier defence wasn’t beaten by one but two one-legged man in last week’s ass-kicking contest. Nathan Riva ran for some 280 yards on what is reported to be a less than 100% right knee. His running mate DaShawn Thomas was used sparingly but effectively since he was nursing a very bad case of turf toe. If Faulds and Riva are back to even 90% come Saturday, that Mustangs offence will be giving Queen’s fits all afternoon.
On the other sideline, the (Golden) Gaels offence is about one man: Danny Brannagan. He missed some time earlier in the season which likely cost him his shot at the CIS all-time passing mark but looked healthy since returning. Unlike Faulds, he really only has one go-to man: Scott Valberg. Don’t get me wrong, Brannagan spreads out the ball. However, it seems as if his first read is always going to be Valberg. While Brannagan doesn’t have the number of targets Faulds has, arguably he uses what he has better than Faulds. Most quarterbacks would give unmentionable parts of their bodies (usually testicles) to have a receiving corps like Faulds. Brannagan has made a lot out of this offence without a lot of stars to make it.
While the debate between Western and Queen’s often comes down to Faulds and Brannagan, it doesn’t give credit to the men ahead and behind them at the line of scrimmage. Hell, the battle between Faulds and Brannagan is so close that the media and OUA’s all-star selection committee have endless debates over who is better. Regardless of who is the better QB, Faulds has the better crew.
Western’s defence, as has been documented on this blog before, is in the midst of a rebuilding. Like last year, the secondary is a bit soft which should make life easy for Danny Brannagan. However, a good coverage DB, like Craig Butler, should be keyed onto Valberg to minimize the impact of Brannagan’s favourite target on the game. Butler is well known for bringing the noise in the post-season. He didn’t have as big an impact a last week as John Surla but how much of that was TV coverage, how much of that was Surla, and how much of that was Butler, you can’t really tell from your couch. The front seven are the strongest part of Western’s defence. They’re always well prepared and capable to handle the run and short-passing game. If Queen’s runs plays up the middle, Western can keep them in check. If Queen’s looks outside or beyond the first down marker, they’ll have more success.
The Queen’s defence has a potentially difficult task ahead of them on Saturday. The enigmatic Western O-Line had a great week against Laurier last week. Over the last two years, I’ve seen this line play about 16 games (in person and on TV) and never saw them handle pass protection as well as they did in the OUA semi-final. They often get a more than adequate push on the run block to give Riva and company holes to run through. Well, that is against everyone that isn’t Queen’s. Osie Okwuoma dominates the line on every snap he plays. He’s easily the best defensive lineman in the OUA and will be giving Western fits all day. If Queen’s brings a blitz, Faulds will be eating turf sooner rather than later. They also have a play controlling DB in Jimmy Allin and a very good DB in Stephen Laporte. The pair can’t cover all of Faulds’ targets but they can buy the rush enough time to get to Faulds.
Remember that fire and ice analogy from the top? What I really mean is that the Western offence is fire and the Queen’s defence is ice. Whichever unit wins the battle while Faulds is on the field will win the game.
There is no contest here. Jimmy Allin is the best returner in the OUA. Western has tried a few different guys but there isn’t really a stand-out unless they keep running Riva into the ground. Allin has that uncanny ability to make something out of nothing. Kicking the ball to him is just an invitation for trouble.
As for kickers/punters, take your choice. Dan Village got the nod for the OUA Second-Team All-Stars but that could have easily been Wheeler had he played all eight regular season games. The thing is that Wheeler performs better with more on the line. He plays better on the road than at home and loves to dish out big hits. Village is your classic kicker. He likes the familiarity of home turf and he makes all the routine kicks. That doesn’t mean that he can’t make clutch kicks. It’s more that we never see him make clutch kicks because how often does his team force him to bail them out?
Maybe it’s because I never dealt with Queen’s coach Pat Sheehan on as regular a basis as I did with Western coach Greg Marshall, but Coach Sheehan seems like a much more likeable guy. That’s not a knock on Coach Marshall. It’s just that he’s an intense guy. A quick aside: We had a guy doing his first game as a sideline reporter at York in Week 4 of 2008. He’s hanging well back of the Western bench so he doesn’t get in the way of anyone. (A stark contrast to me who walked among the players so I could overhear what coaches and players were saying so I could scoop the TV guys. And I’d like to think that I was better at what I did than The Score’s guys but that’s a matter of personal and professional pride.) At one point, Marshall turns around and stares at our guy, then looks away. On the drive home, he said to me, “That was the longest two seconds of my life.”
Anyway, you can’t question Marshall’s coaching pedigree. He was tutored by CIS and Western coaching legend Larry Haylor. He went on to the CFL where he was named Coach of the Year (though the rest of his tenure with the Tiger-Cats is best forgotten). His charges haven’t lost an Ontario playoff game this decade. Since losing his last playoff game with McMaster in 1999, teams coached by Marshall are 19-0 in OUA post-season action. You can argue all you want about how much influence a coach actually has over winning or losing a game but if anyone can do it, it’s Coach Marshall. That being said, if the game starts getting away from Western, Marshall has a nasty habit of running Riva up the gut. Anytime the run game struggles, that’s his default play call. Watch for it if the Mustangs struggle to establish themselves on the ground.
Pat Sheehan doesn’t have the playoff pedigree that Marshall has. In fact, Saturday’s win over McMaster was the first post-season win for Queen’s in four year’s. If it wasn’t for the regular season success that Queen’s has had recently, I wouldn’t have been shocked if Sheehan was turfed. That’s not a biased statement but when you consider the storied history of Queen’s football and that many coaches have been fired for not winning championships, it wouldn’t be entirely unfathomable that Coach Sheehan could be on thin ice if he doesn’t win a Yates Cup soon. Again, I’m not saying he’s a bad coach and I’m not trying to qualify the last statement. At some point, though, he and his team have to step up and take that next step to achieve another cliché. In all seriousness, this team is very good but a man as competitive as Coach Marshall will not let himself be outcoached by anyone, especially with the season on the line.
So, if you’re keeping track of the scores at home, it’s deadlocked at two a piece. It really is too close to call between Queen’s and Western. Three of the last four games were one-score games at the final gun. Anyone that can say with 100% certainty that a certain team will win is either a fan of the team they pick or utterly delusional. Regardless of the outcome, we’re destined for an all-out war on Saturday afternoon at Richardson Stadium.
I’ll be live tweeting the game on the blog’s Twitter account @LowdownFM
TV: The Score
Radio: CFRC (Queen’s), CHRW (Western)
I don’t want to recommend that you follow the game with any one broadcaster, but having been the colour commentator for CHRW, I would recommend listening to CFRC.