Queen’s and Western are separated by just one spot in the national football rankings. Tomorrow, they’ll face off at Richardson Stadium — and in doing so, set the tone for the 2012 season.
Through two weeks, both teams have played the equivalent of an extended preseason. Queen’s steadily dismantled York and Laurier, while Western boasts a pair of walkover wins against Waterloo and Toronto.
It’s entirely possible that all four of those teams will be left out of the OUA playoffs. The Gaels’ and Mustangs’ spotless records are nothing more than a precursor for the first bit of legitimate football they’ll play this season.
Fifth-year quarterback Donnie Marshall leads an otherwise youthful Mustangs team, one that’s lost a litany of key players from 2011. Standout running back Nathan Riva graduated, CIS Rookie of the Year Tyler Varga transferred to Yale, and three linemen moved on to the CFL.
Western entered the season ranked fifth in the country, but face persistent questions about their potential in a pseudo-rebuilding year.
Standing at just 5’8, Marshall is an aberration in a conference populated by pro-style quarterbacks. He doesn’t possess the versatility of York’s Myles Gibbon, Laurier’s Travis Eman or McMaster’s Kyle Quinlan, nor the pocket presence and strong arm of Billy McPhee.
Marshall’s strengths are more intangible than physical, and they shouldn’t be significant against Queen’s defence, which has already beaten better quarterbacks this season.
Western’s real offensive strength lies in its multi-pronged rushing attack. Nearly all Canadian teams favour passing in order to maximize their three downs, but Western’s offense is predominantly run-oriented — as well as terrifyingly effective.
New starter Garret Sanvido is currently tied for the CIS’ lead in points, backup Tyrel Reid is a viable option in short-yardage situations, and rookie Yannick Harou will be groomed as the future starter. Even Marshall’s greatest asset is his ability to run the ball, ranking first among CIS quarterbacks in rushing yards in 2011.
The most fascinating positional matchup in tomorrow’s game will be Western’s vaunted backs against Queen’s defence, which is the perfect counterpoint to the Mustangs’ ground game.
The Gaels are anchored by a relentless front seven assembled specifically to smother the run. In a matchup of the country’s greatest running offense and defence, something has to give. Whichever unit holds strong will win their team the game.
While the Mustangs possessed the province’s most potent offense in 2011, their defence was more in line with that of a borderline playoff team. Western’s 7-1 record was deserved, but also deceiving: they barely eked out several victories over pedestrian teams, surrendering a combined 80 points to Laurier, York and Guelph in a three-week stretch. Even discounting a meaningless shutout in the season finale, Queen’s was outplaying Western by the end of last year.
That advantage should carry over to tomorrow. Neither defence has been tested in 2012, save for a couple slipups late in blowout victories. The Gaels return practically intact from 2011, when a dominant McMaster squad derailed a promising season.
Western started hot, began playing down to its competition and was finally pasted by the Marauders in the Yates Cup. Rolling through the likes of Waterloo and Toronto shouldn’t quell any doubts.
Ultimately, Saturday’s matchup will answer many questions, but few of those answers will be finite. Tomorrow’s result could be irrelevant by the end of October — but at the moment, it’s all that matters.
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