It seemed like a voice somewhere was saying, "It's not supposed to be this easy."
After all, this was a Laurier team that the Gaels hadn't beat since October 11, 2003, back in the Tommy Denison era. This was a Laurier team that was ranked 10th nationally, beat a talented Guelph team in Week 1 and narrowly lost 31-20 to the very impressive Western Mustangs last week. This was also a Laurier team whose head coach, Gary Jeffries, held an overall record of 45-9-0-1 coming into today's match and had never lost back-to-back games. After today, he can no longer make that claim.
This is not the same Laurier that thumped Queen's 23-4 last season and 45-0 in 2005. Some of the key starters from those years have moved on, and the Golden Hawks aren't as imposing. They're still a formidable opponent though, and there wasn't much going into this that would suggest that Queen's quarterback Dan Brannagan would throw for 438 yards, two short of his career high (recorded against U of T last season).* Queen's also put up 222 rushing yards on the day, with 125 coming from Mike Giffin on 25 carries, and another 64 coming from Brannagan (one 62-yard carry and a bunch of short QB sneaks). Those aren't the kind of offensive statistics you expect to see against the Golden Hawks.
*Note on Brannagan's numbers: he completed 22 of 38 passes for 438 yards and three touchdowns with a longest pass of 64 yards, but he was also sacked twice and threw four interceptions. He easily could have had a career day in passing yards, but was yanked with about four minutes left for backup Jansen Shrubb.
When you look at the overall picture, though, the game starts to make sense. The first quarter in particular was more of what we expected to see from Laurier's defence. Queen's put together some decent drives, but couldn't convert, and only came away with six points (off a 42-yard field goal, a 35-yard rouge and a safety). Giffin carried the ball seven times for 32 yards and a decent but not overly impressive 4.6 yards per carry average. Brannagan completed eight of 12 passes for 123 yards, but also was charged with an interception when Devan Sheahan had a pass ripped out of his hands in the end zone.
The Laurier offensive stats from the first quarter sound like something out of the Twilight Zone (cue dah-do-dah-do music). Ryan Lynch, who ran for over 1,000 yards last season, achieved a grand total of two net yards on four carries, thanks to excellent pressure from defensive end Osie Ukwuoma and linebacker Thaine Carter, among others. Quarterback Ian Noble, who didn't play in last week's game against Western, completed two of four passes for 12 yards, and the Hawks spent only 5:38 with the ball.
Things didn't improve much for Laurier in the second quarter, but their defence was still holding under the strain. They conceded another safety and then a field goal, but picked Brannagan off again in the end zone to prevent a touchdown. Their offence couldn't get going, though, even with backup quarterback Luke Thompson in. Thompson couldn't complete a pass early, and Lynch was still getting stuffed on every run attempt, meaning that the Hawks had to keep punting the ball away and hoping their defence could bear up under the strain. The dam finally broke when Brannagan scampered 48 yards to set up an easy two-yard touchdown run for Giffin, giving Queen's an 18-0 lead. On the next drive, the Laurier offence showed signs of life when Thompson completed a 26-yard pass to Josh Bishop. However, the play was called back for holding, and Laurier had to punt again. Brannagan threw his third interception of the day on the next Queen's drive, though, and Thompson responded with a 43-yard touchdown pass to Shamawd Chambers* with less than a minute to go in the half, reducing the lead to 11 points. At halftime, it still looked like the Gaels were in for a fight, especially after such a late demoralizing score.
*Interesting note on the Chambers pass: he was isolated one-on-one against Queen's backup cornerback Josh Sultana, and blew by him with some speed. Sultana was only in the game because Jay Oduwole was hurt early on. I didn't see Oduwole return, so that may be an area to keep an eye on next week.
Football is a surprising game, though. Sometimes, you'll see a team fired up by their own late success and storming out of the gate in the second half to make things
interesting. At other times, it's the team that gets scored on that gets mad, and that's what happened in this case. Queen's punted on the first drive, but their defence forced another two-and-out from Laurier, and then the Gaels blew things open. Just over three minutes into the second half, Brannagan launched a 34-yard pass to Scott Valberg, who added another 30 yards after the catch for an early touchdown. Another touchdown came two and a half minutes later on a pass to Scott Stinson, and the Gaels had an almost insurmountable 32-7 lead. They added another safety and another touchdown on a Brannagan-Valberg connection, leading to a final score of Queen's 41, Laurier 7.
Time of possession was probably the game's key factor. Laurier held Queen's to 18 points in the first half, and they would have only conceded 11 points if their defence hadn't misread Brannagan's long scramble up the middle with less than two minutes to go that set up Giffin for the easy touchdown. They were on the field for 16:23 in the first half, though, and you could tell they were getting tired by the end. Laurier's offence could only produce two-and-outs, though, so the Gaels kept Laurier's defence on the field and took advantage of their fatigue in the second half.
If the Hawks had been able to create any offence at all, this could have been a pretty close game, especially given that their defence created six turnovers on the day (four interceptions and two fumble recoveries). As Jeffries said after the game, "I thought our defence played an outstanding game today, regardless of the points on the board." That sounds silly at first, coming from a coach whose team gave up 41 points, but when you consider that his defence was on the field for over 33 minutes of the game and was facing one of the most dangerous offences in the OUA, that really isn't all that bad. There's still plenty of time for Laurier to turn it around, and there were definitely some positive signs on the defensive side of the ball today.
Two standouts for Queen's today were Valberg and defensive tackle Dee Sterling. Valberg caught six passes for a career-high 193 yards and also scored two touchdowns. His previous career-best mark was 146 yards against Waterloo in 2005. Sterling gave Laurier's offensive line nightmares, racking up five individual sacks and one shared sack (with Ukwuoma). According to Queen's sports information officer Mike Grobe, that's a Gaels record. He also had six solo tackles, four assisted tackles, and six tackles for a loss (leading to a total of 37 yards lost) and was named Player of the Game.
It was perhaps appropriate that Queen's honoured the 1968 and 1978 Vanier Cup championship teams today, as well as the 1983 Dunsmore Cup champions and the 1963 Yates Cup champions. The Gaels' play on the defensive side of the ball was certainly reminiscent of some of those glory years (Neate suggested that the play of today's defensive line looked like the famed Gold Rush of Dick Bakker, Bob Francis, Jim Muller and Rob Ball). In fact, Jeffries chalked up the Hawks' offensive failures to the play of his O-line. "We had no offence whatsoever," he said after the game. "Our kids up front just got flat-out beaten." Queen's held Guelph to two net rushing yards (on 17 carries), 121 net passing yards, six first downs and only 22 minutes of possession.
The Gaels now go on to face the University of Toronto Varsity Blues, who moved to 2-1today with a 58-7 blowout of the York Lions. It will be important for the Gaels not to get too confident heading into that matchup. They should still win, but Toronto has shown this year that they've improved substantially. Queen's will have to focus on this upcoming game, as it would be all too easy to start thinking about the Homecoming clash with Western on Sept. 27. Given that Western thwomped Waterloo 49-3 today and faces the 0-3 York Lions next week, there's every chance that the Homecoming game will feature two unbeaten teams, which would be a heck of a show.
- If you ever wondered what football players do between games, this item is for you. Kingston's own Bryan Crawford of Toronto Argonauts fame penned this piece for today's Whig-Standard about game-week preparation details. There's some quite interesting stuff in there for those of us who haven't played high-level football.
- If you want more information on the teams that were honoured today, you can look at this piece by Clint Walper in today's Whig, which goes through the details of all four of those seasons. It's not for everyone due to the length and level of description involved, but those interested in Gaels' history should check it out. He includes quotes from the likes of Doug Hargreaves, Ross O'Doherty, Jim D'Andrea and Ed Andrew. There's also a lot of interesting reactions to the name change from former players and coaches at the bottom of the piece.
- Here's the link to my GBU breakdown at Sporting Madness, with quotes from Pat Sheahan, Gary Jeffries and Dan Brannagan.
- Neate has digested all of the week's action coast-to-coast at The CIS Blog.