LONDON, Ont. — It was billed as a heavyweight fight between the CIS’s two winningest coaches and two most storied programs.
It lived up to that pre-game hype but in different ways than I thought.
In my first game at TD Stadium not wearing equipment or holding a microphone, I enjoyed the subplots just like every other fan for once. Yes, there were huge hits and lots of smack talk. Yes, there were chants back and forth in the student section. Even the battle of the bands throughout the contest was riveting. What I will remember most, however, about this chapter of the storied rivalry were the plays that weren’t made and, the opportunities that were left on the table.
Heavyweight fights are known for their knockout blows but what is more telling in the sweet science are the times when you swing and miss. In a game between two equally-matched contenders, the Gaels swung and missed more often and, more importantly, left themselves open for counter punches. That’s why, if they want to hoist the Yates Cup again, they’ll most likely have to get back on a bus and travel west to do it.
For more details on the Western Mustangs’ decisive victory over the Queen’s Gaels click here.
The first blunder came early for the Gaels. Looking to answer a score on their first possession, Jesse Andrews fumbled on first and goal, nullifying a 12-play, 91-yard drive. Essentially all it did was take 5:51 off the clock. Not an ideal start.
Then a Billy McPhee pass, that was inaccurate but still possibly catchable by a player as talented as Ryan Granberg, was intercepted by Preston Huggins and returned for a touchdown — more points given away.
Then after clawing back to within 11 points, a too-many-men penalty on a field -goal attempt gave Western a fresh set of downs and culminated in a Yannick Harou TD.
The most fatal misstep, though, came at the end of the third quarter. After McPhee evaded pressure and had no viable options among his primary receivers, he improvised and dumped it to his running back, Daniel Heslop, as a safety valve. Heslop reversed field and it appeared he would run untouched into the endzone, only to wobble ever so slightly out of bounds as he tight-roped the sidelines. Not taking the fastest, most direct route from A to B proved costly as the Gaels were stuffed on first and second down and goal.
Down just 15 with a quarter to go with one of the best kickers ready to attempt a chip shot, most would have elected to bring on the field-goal team. But Gaels coach Pat Sheahan elected to go for it and take to the air. McPhee’s pass to Scott Macdonell was incomplete. What was a valiant comeback effort was snuffed out seemingly before it got started.
What was telling in this battle was not that two exquisite offences got the better of two great defences, or that “special players were making special plays on a special day,” as play-by-play voice Tim Micallef often recants, it’s that opportunity lost comes with opportunity cost.
With this loss, the Queen’s Gaels still have to fight the surging Guelph Gryphons for a first-round playoff bye and home field in the OUA semifinals. Make no mistake, it is certainly plausible the Gaels can beat Western. In their last seven matches with the Mustangs, the Gaels have won five times. All the wins were at home, while all the losses were on the road.
Saturday’s tilt showed that both teams can go toe-to-toe physically with Laval, who struggled to beat Bishop’s. But the Gaels will have to find a way to not beat themselves.
Like any prize fight, however, the best part of Saturday’s result is that it sets us up for the rematch. You had a sense on Saturday that both coaches were saving formations, adjustments and play calls for the brisk time of year when hardware gets handed out.
Leaving the stadium I had a sense that both teams knew they could win it. After what I saw on Saturday it’s anybody’s guess who will. Let the debate begin.