Semifinal win was too much to ask

The Gaels would have needed a perfect performance to beat McMaster last weekend

Head coach Pat Sheahan (back right) talks to his team after Saturday's loss. In nine seasons, Sheahan's playoff record is 10-8.
Head coach Pat Sheahan (back right) talks to his team after Saturday's loss. In nine seasons, Sheahan's playoff record is 10-8.
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The football team’s problems were obvious in last Saturday’s 40-13 semifinal loss to the McMaster Marauders.

After scoring only two points in a Sept. 5 loss to the Marauders, it was clear the Gaels needed their best offensive game of the season to win against McMaster. But they were unprepared after playing mediocre OUA defences for eight straight games.

The Marauders’ pass defence, which leads the country in interceptions, nabbed six of backup quarterback Ryan Mitchell’s passes in the first half. Mitchell was replacing starter Billy McPhee, who was out with a bruised rib. It’s doubtful that McPhee would have changed the result.

It takes an experienced quarterback — like McMaster’s Kyle Quinlan — to create opportunities out of nothing. Mitchell was forced to throw into heavy coverage on Saturday and the Marauders’ defensive backs made him pay.

The Gaels’ stalwart ground game didn’t show up either. Running back Ryan Granberg became the CIS rushing leader while playing against weak defences all season, but he didn’t find a rhythm on Saturday until the Marauders were up by 20 points.

The team leaned on its defence to keep it in games all season, but couldn’t on Saturday. The Gaels put on their worst defensive performance of the year, allowing a season-high 40 points. Much of that can be blamed on poor field position and fatigue from constant offensive turnovers, but the defence still didn’t look like the one that allowed the fewest points in the OUA during the regular season.

Despite the flaws, the Gaels had improved from last season. The team lost to a McMaster squad that could win a national championship.

The offensive unit wasn’t much better than last season’s, but it played more consistently in close games like the 13-6 win over the Toronto Varsity Blues and the 27-14 win over the Windsor Lancers.

Defence was the team’s strong point this year. The Gaels allowed only 103 points in the regular season, compared to 183 in 2010. The return of sack-machine lineman Osie Ukwuoma and the improvement of the secondary produced a defence that almost looked like the 2009 Vanier Cup champions’.

The discussion about parity in the OUA this season only applied to the middle of the pack. The league’s top two teams — the Marauders and the Western Mustangs — were a step above the others. The Marauders are playing their best football of the year right now. No team can match McMaster without playing an error-free game.

The league could be similar next year. The OUA’s best players — Quinlan and receiver Mike Di Croce from the Marauders, and running back Tyler Varga from the Mustangs — will all have CIS eligibility next season.

The Gaels aren’t likely to win another Vanier Cup in coming seasons, but they can be serious Yates Cup contenders in the next two years. If McPhee can reach Quinlan’s level before he graduates, the Gaels will be one of the best teams in the OUA.

The Gaels’ defence will decline without Ukwuoma, who had five sacks and led the best defensive line in the country. There aren’t any linemen ready to fill his role right away.

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