Friday, September 19, 2008

Campus Corner: Preview of Queen's-U of T football game

Today’s football game between the 3-0 Gaels and the 2-1* University of Toronto Varsity Blues, which will be live-blogged right here (kickoff at 1 p.m.), should be an interesting clash. It’s a great matchup for Toronto, as the vast majority expects them to be beaten to an unrecognizable pulp, so the weight of expectations on the Blues is reduced to a single feather.

*It still feels weird writing Varsity Blues with a number other than zero in front.

For Queen’s, the situation’s approaching Kobayashi Maru-like levels of difficulty, as there’s almost no way this game can improve their standings. Everyone expects a big win, so even a superlative performance will be shrugged off with a “aw, it was against Toronto.” A closer game would lead to intense questioning, while a loss would lead to calls for heads, perhaps displayed John the Baptist-style on a platter. Very little good can come from this game, and there’s the potential for a lot of negatives to arise.
Looking on the bright side of life, as we should always do, this still should be a relatively easy victory for the Gaels. U of T has improved drastically from last year, but so has Queen’s, and the Gaels were a far better team in the first place.

Moreover, the Gaels have depth on their side. U of T has a few stars like quarterback David Hamilton and wide receiver/running back/everything else Mark Stinson, but they’re relatively young and have a lot of players without a ton of CIS experience. If Queen’s shuts down their marquee players, it’s tough to imagine where the offence will come from.

On the other hand, Queen’s has a tremendous variety of star players in the likes of quarterback Dan Brannagan (second in the country with 1163 passing yards), running back Mike Giffin (leading CIS players with 472 rushing yards), wide receiver Scott Valberg (who has 405 receiving yards, second in the CIS), defensive tackle Dee Sterling (top of the league with five solo and one assisted sack) and halfback/punt returner Jimmy Allin (leading CIS players with 327 punt return yards, and he also has two interceptions).

What may be more significant, though, is the calibre of the rest of the team. If the offensive line decides to double-team Sterling, that opens up holes for the likes of Osie Ukwuoma and Kyle MacDonald. Valberg is nicely supported in the receiving corps by the likes of Scott Stinson and Chris Ioannides, while Giffin can be spelled off by the also-effective Marty Gordon. If Toronto decides to keep their punts away from Allin, backup returner Jimmy Therrien has picked up a measly 119 yards so far, second amongst OUA players and fifth-best in the country.

The danger for Queen’s is if their players start looking past this one to next weekend’s Homecoming game against Western. That probably would be pretty easy to do, given Toronto’s past performance and the magnitude of next week’s clash, and it could be dangerous. The Blues have shown plenty of talent so far, so if the Gaels’ minds start to wander, there’s the chance of a comeback and perhaps even an upset.

I spoke with head coach Pat Sheahan about that very possibility at the team’s media session on Thursday afternoon. His quotes on focus, and a few other matters of interest, are below.

On the Varsity Blues:

“Toronto’s a better football team than they have been in the last couple of years. ... Their quarterback looks like he’s playing the best football of his career.”

“Their depth could be an issue. ... They have their strengths. If they can get the ball to their key contributors, they’re going to have a good day.”

“They do some things on offence that make you have to conjure up some good answers.”

On if Toronto can make the playoffs this year
(an unthinkable question last year): “They’re in the hunt.”

On what he told the team this week in practice: “The challenge [to them] was to stay focused.”

On how the team will be looking to build confidence
with a strong performance against Toronto:

“That 10-letter word, confidence, is everything in football.”

On how one of their goals will be to reduce the number of turnovers they committed last week:
“We have to eliminate turnovers moving forward.”

On the play of the receiving corps so far:

“We have had a few drops, but on a positive note, the guys are getting open.”

On Queen’s defensive line:

“We also thought [at the start of the season] that our defensive line could be a dominant unit in the league, and they’re really stepping up and showing their mettle.”

On what happens if the Toronto offensive line double-teams Sterling:

“If you have a plan for one, you create some space for the others.”

On avoiding injuries:
“We can’t afford to lose too many of our key contributors.”

On the loss ["Goodbye, Moose," myself, Queen’s Journal] of legendary coach Hal “Moose” McCarney Tuesday night:
“He’s done more living in his 81 years than people have in centuries. ... One of his laments was that he was really upset about aging. His body had failed him but his mind was brilliant. I couldn’t imagine him living hooked up to machines or incapacitated in any way. ...I talked to his son this morning and his instructions were to give Toronto what for in his [McCarney’s] name.”

On the plans to honour McCarney next week:
“We certainly are planning a tribute for the Homecoming game where we will have a lot of our supporters.”

On how the loss of McCarney came in the same week
as that of former CFL star Ron Lancaster, who passed away early Thursday:
“Those are two names that are synonymous with Canadian football. They will be missed. ... It has not been a good week.”

On Lancaster:

“Anyone who’s a CFL fan knows not only the history of Ron Lancaster but the relevance. He was a football icon in this country.”

On Toronto director of football Bob Howes, a former Queen’s coach:
“To go in there and be able to impart his knowledge and philosophy on some of their guys has been extremely valuable. ... He’s done a great job there.”

On pulling receiver Rob Bagg last season before he could break the Queen’s and CIS single-game receiving record, which he later told Tyler King(for a Journal piece, shockingly enough: this was before he unleashed the full venom of his hatred for our media outlet) was because he didn’t want to see the record tainted. Here’s the original quote: “I felt that, with all due respect to Robert [Bagg], that for him to set a record against a team that is winless would have been tainted,”
And his quote Thursday:
“That’s what I said at the time because I didn’t know how many yards he had, to be honest.”
Sheahan said he’d consider leaving starters in to break records this time around, as long as it wasn’t too late in the game and the score wasn’t too lopsided.
“There’s breaking records and then there’s maintaining professional decorum and sportsmanship. ... I don’t think Rob’s losing any sleep over not getting another 15 yards.”

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