Western, who sent the Gaels' season up in smoke with a 27-19 win, was the best of the three teams on the field. It was too much for Queen's to beat a good team when it wasn't firing on all cylinders and dealing with referees whose work was kind of questionable. It is stomach liner-shredding to imagine how it felt for graduating Gaels such as Rob Bagg, Matt Vickers and D.J. Mulholland to have their time in Tricolour end this way. Closure for them, and for this overzealous alum, might have come a lot easier with a 45-7 stomping. It removes all the coulda-woulda-shoulda.
Let's be clear: Western coach Greg Marshall and his players were full value for playing a superb road game. They ground down the Gaels, taking the crowd out of it with a clock-controlling, one-turnover offensive showing led by an efficient Mike Faulds (24 passes for 253 yards) and gritty Randy McAuley (38 carries, 161 yards).
The players can get over it, but here there is no getting past the work of a crew which had three blown calls that amounted to a 13-point swing for Western. It's part of the game, of course. The mistakes included a pair of sketchy pass-interference penalties deep in Queen's territory that extended Western's first two touchdown drives. In between, a quick whistle midway through the second quarter halted Gaels receiver Scott Valberg's progress at the Mustangs 21-yard line after a CFL-quality hit by Western safety Matt Carapella failed to do the job.
The OUA should at least make a public admission the crew blew the latter call. It was that freaking obvious. Otherwise, it feels like the conference was terrified by the prospect of an Ottawa-Queen's Yates Cup from a marketing and an ego standpoint. (As College Colours noted two weeks ago, "an upset loss to Western in the quarters seems as likely as an upset win against Laurier in the semis" for the Gaels.)
In the NCAA, conferences regularly own up to it when the officials are in clear error. Part of that comes from increased public scrutiny, but it also comes from a moral imperative to do right by the coaches and players.
The 'Stangs got seven points instead of three out of those drives. That's an eight-point swing. Carapella's non-tackle, when Valberg staggered back a couple steps from the impact of the hit but stayed on his feet, meant a swing of five. Carapella intercepted a balloon of a Dan Brannagan pass two plays later, allowing Western to get away with just a safety instead of a touchdown. (It was a bad pass, but if Valberg gets inside the 10, is Brannagan even throwing again on that drive?)
There is no excuse for the Gaels not finding a way to overcome, or for appearing to be outcoached. It just bears pointing out they were set back all day. The frustration, written in the players' posture as they would come off the field after one unsatisfactory series after another, filtered up from the field to the stands (well, at least the west side that actually contained fans). The Gaels will have the whole winter to wonder why -- but let it be said, self-doubt follows from failure, it doesn't cause it.
The defence played hard but did not get takeaways -- 76 defensive snaps was just too much. Being down 6-0 early and 27-16 midway through the third threw Queen's run-pass ratio out of whack. (They ended up minus-35 in rush attempts.) The coaches had their reasons for why this was, but Mike Giffin (49 yards, a season low) was taken out of the equation. The time-and-score situation forced the Gaels to junk the run, and revert to that pass-whacky Faustian compact from a few years ago.
The offence stalled inside the 25 and on the torn-up track, rookie kicker Dan Village went just 1-for-3. There's another six points, although rule of thumb says never put in on the kicker – put it on the other 12 guys for not giving him a chance to kick the convert.
Still, there was a chance until Brannagan’s final third-down pass fell incomplete with 58 seconds left. It just wasn’t meant to be, and yes, that is cliché, but it’s also the truth. Western winning was that one-in-10 shot, much like with Laurier in '03. It doesn't make the Mustangs the better team. The game won them, not the other way around. The same went for the Gaels when they were a 4-4 team who upset McMaster on the road last fall. It was not convincing who was the better team and that's what makes it so hard to square oneself with how it went down.
Some price-of-everything, value-of-nothing types will use this to justify their own skepticism about the Gaels, saying it had to be the Yates Cup or nothing. That is a shallow read. You can be as deserving as anyone else and be passed over. People who are only sort-of deserving, as Western was Saturday, get rewarded every day. That's life.
From a fan point of view, there's no regret about this season. It didn't work out, but the Gaels put on a good show all season. Having their game fail them in a one-game playoff does not invalidate the success of the season. The feeling is there is finally some continuity with the program -- which wasn't there at the end of 2003, the previous high-water mark. The Gaels' recruiting backyard, Eastern Ontario, is more talent-rich than it was 10 years. Stronger seasons and the shifting priority of Queen's Athletics to focus more on the sports that are the school's strong suit might help attract more talented players from the Golden Horseshoe and elsewhere.
It's the will to win. The Gaels didn't have it Saturday, but one has to believe they wil have in some future season. There's a thought, Pollyannaish thought it might be, that will warm the heart now that the long winter seems that much closer.
- The real story with the refs might be that there isn't a younger generation of football officials coming up. The veteran refs are getting stretched thin. That doesn't excuse the shoddy work on Saturday. The OUA has to address it and participate in getting some new blood in. The refs are not independent contractors.
It is not good for the game when fans are so openly skeptical about the work of the officials. Every time the ball was spotted in a short-yardage situation, there was a lot of open questioning -- a grievance that stemmed from the Ottawa game.
Gaels D-end Osi Ukwuoma was held up so often by his man, right tackle Zachary Pollari, that he must have thought of changing his name to Apu Nahasapeemapetilon afterward. Somehow, Western, the seventh-most penalized team in the 27-team CIS, didn't get a holding penalty until there was 5:32 left in the game. Figure that out.
- Proof that the football Gaels were jammed comes in the great weekend Queen's athletes had in London. The men's basketball Gaels won Western's home tournament, while cross-country's Braden Novakowski won the silver medal at the OUA cross-country meet, also held in that city.
- One would be remiss not to say thanks to Doug Jeffries, who's stepping aside after 27 years as the P.A. announcer at Richardson Stadium. The classic was during a game last season, when the U of T was playing Waterloo and had a chance to end The Streak. Cue Jeffries: "Elsewhere in the OUA.... a final score... the University of Toronto 25... Waterloo 28." He would give a score backwards just as a tease, use a pregnant pause for comic effect.
- It took a while to find something that eases the pain... seeing this happen to a team in purple did it:
- Words fail when it comes to describing how touching it is to have readers deliver compliments in person, which has happened at the last two games I've been out to. It's funny how that works out: You can work your butt off at a daily paper with a readership of thousands and get very little feedback good or bad. You write a blog with a readership of a couple hundred people and feel more connected. Thanks again, if it hasn't been said strongly enough already.
- Much obliged to Dan Pawliw with the Queen's Football Club for linkage and positive feedback all season.