On the evidence, coach Pat Sheahan and offensive co-ordinator Warren Goldie never forgot the hard lesson of Nov. 1, 2003, the last time the Queen's Golden Gaels hosted a playoff game.
That infamous upset overtime playoff loss to Laurier that we Queen's types don't talk about has been alluded to in conversation more than once this week. For some friends who are more well-adjusted 25-to-34-year-olds and thus less obsessive about Queen's football, that game is a point of reference. It inculcated a belief that every Queen's team, no matter what its record, has some crucial design flaw, like the Death Star. It makes for a superficial parallel since this team is at least favoured in Saturday's OUA quarter-final vs. the Western Mustangs (1 p.m., cfrc.ca) as those '03 Gaels were. Well, it could happen again, but chances are it won't, since Sheahan, Goldie, and Co. have changed tactics and have a team better built for playoff football.
The memory burn from '03 was that maybe the Gaels tempted fate by getting too pass-wacky on offence and giving the running game a lick and a promise. This year, there probably isn't a team in the OUA who has a better balance between the run and the pass. Mike Giffin set school records and led the OUA in yards from scrimmage. He will be the first Gaels running back to be selected a first-team conference all-star since Paul Correale in 1998 and perhaps the first to be all-Canadian since another Kingston lad, Jonathan Taylor in '94. The Gaels will probably have two O-linemen named to the OUA all-star team for the first time since 2002.
The Dan Brannagan-helmed passing game, as elaborated upon at The CIS Blog, has become much more efficient and economical at managing the ball. Western's Michael Faulds has more yards, but that's where the comparison ends. The Gaels have worked together to be more economical and more efficient. Throwing out the results from games against U of T, Brannagan averaged 8.63 yards per pass to Faulds' 7.78, but with more touchdowns, fewer sacks and half the interceptions.
Western's got a shot on Saturday. They might be right that they're better than the Queen's team who became the first No. 6 seed to win a playoff game (remember who called that one?). However, the Gaels are an improving group. That McMaster team who was upset last season was a nicked-up bunch who had peaked sometime around the fall solstice. Western also hasn't seen a running game as good as Queen's since that Week 1 game in London, and remember, that was early season, when the defences are always ahead of the offences.
The bottom line is that the Gaels' well-honed balance on offence complements a strong bend-but-don't-break defence that's been good vs. the run and the pass. It's also overdue for a couple interceptions after picking off just six passes during the regular season. Defensive co-ordinator Pat Tracey's crew should be able to get pressure on the slow-footed Faulds, whose drop-back style is too Americanized, not really a good fit for wide-field, three-down Canadian football.
The Mustangs and the London media can believe all they want this is a team no one wants to see in the playoffs -- they're still a penalty-prone, turnover-prone bunch. That further points to Queen's coming out ahead on Saturday. Give Western credit for not totally folding after that 0-4 start, but the reality is the Mustangs aren't that good. (Yet those same friends are still sending messages like, "Remember, it's Western." Who knew Jamie Bone, Tyrone Williams and Tim Tindale were playing on Saturday?)
The ball always bounces for the team with the better quarterback and coach, and right now, that the Gaels. Anything can happen in a game played by teenagers and early 20-somethings, but it won't be this Saturday.
Prediction: Gaels 28, Western 16 (with some of this at halftime):
Quick note: I'll be a panelist today at 4 p.m. on CFRC 101.9 FM's afternoon sports show with Tyler King and Brendan McNamara. It's also available on the web at cfrc.ca.
That's all for now. Send your thoughts to email@example.com.