A 4-0 record, an average score of 64-13, and a No. 3 ranking in the CIS Top Ten. You would think that life would be pretty good right now for the Western Mustangs.
While Greg Marshall and his staff have no major complaints, things are far from perfect for a team that has national championship aspirations.
There's only so much you can learn when you're winning your games 76-7, 74-10 or 59-9, as the Mustangs did in their first three outings this year. It also must be tough to learn much in a 48-25 win like the one over Queen's on Saturday, a game that could have even been more one sided if Western hadn't turned over the ball three times on fumbles deep in Queen's territory, two of those coming inside the Gaels five-yard line.
Marshall has been on the winning end of many lop-sided scores in his nine seasons as the head coach at Western and prior to that in his seven years at McMaster. He has to balance an attempt to improve his team while at the same time not being accused of running up the score.
"For the most part we've been pretty consistent," Marshall told 'In The Huddle.' "We haven't had a ton of challenges yet."
It might not be quite as hard as looking for transparency in a political campaign, but searching for coachable moments within one-sided games is what the Mustang staff does, with Marshall saying that the team has a specific, yet lofty goal.
"We strive to be perfect," admitted the coach. "We look at game and practice film very closely, we're pretty thorough in film. No matter what the game score is we still try to execute."
There are few positives in those situations where things get out of hand. It's certainly tough for the team on the wrong side of the score, but it's also not easy for a team that wants to prepare for the better opponents in Ontario, with the goal of meeting non-conference teams later in the season.
"It's kind of hard," confessed the coach. "Will (quarterback Finch) was out of the first three games by the mid-point of the third quarter. By that point we're not running our offence, we're just managing the score."
Therein lies the balancing act. When a game starts to get out of hand the coaches have to pull the reins on the Mustangs to keep the lopsided scores from getting even worse. The head coach is pretty confident they've done a good job in this area over the years.
"I've learned that there becomes a point in the game where out of respect you start to manage the score," explained Marshall. "Ask every single coach in our league and they'll tell you that we're trying to manage the score. That's important."
The Mustangs work hard enough in practice that Marshall doesn't think that conditioning will be an issue when the starters are asked to play a full four quarters, but he does have some concerns about a specific mental aspect of the game.
"You worry about a game where it's tense, where it's a close game in the fourth quarter," said Marshall. "You can't replicate that in practice, we worry about that, but nothing replaces real live repetition in games."
One contest that in all likelihood would be close in the fourth quarter would feature Western and Guelph, but sadly that game won't happen in the regular season. When the OUA schedule is drawn up there are several components in play. Some are non-variable, while there's also a completely random draw involved. When the process was completed there was no heavyweight bout between the conference's two remaining unbeaten teams.
"It's unfortunate," said Marshall, a native of Guelph. "I get it, but I think we need to look at the way we do the schedule. That's twice in three years we haven't had Guelph on our schedule. Maybe we can look at key matchups and guard those matchups. I think Guelph would want to play us."
The Mustangs finish the season against Ottawa and McMaster, so they'll face some tougher games just before their playoff drive begins. It is then that Western's quest for perfection will become a whole lot tougher.
The ghosts of some great Western/Queen's meetings of yore likely passed on Saturday's game due to the weather. A heavy downpour hit London making things difficult for both teams. Western led 31-10 at the half. Will Finch lit up the Gaels secondary, passing for 454 yards, while Alex Taylor added 107 more on the ground. The Mustangs had an eye-popping 703 yards on offence. Queen's QB Nate Hobbs had 336 passing yards, throwing three TD passes. Jesse Andrews was held to a season-low 102 yards on the ground, but still leads the country with 583 rushing yards. Western sacked Hobbs eight times, with John Biewald accounting for three of them. He was named CIS defensive player of the week.
There was a real playoff feel to Guelph's 33-23 win over McMaster. A packed Alumni Stadium also got hit with a downpour, sending the Homecoming crowd scrambling for shelter. Much of the rain-soaked second quarter was played without the scoreboard functioning. Offensively the Gryphons were led by James Roberts, who threw for a pair of touchdowns, and Johnny Augustine, who rushed for 106 yards. The Gryphs' defence did a great job on McMaster's Wayne Moore, limiting him to 75 yards on 20 carries. They weren't as successful slowing down Dan Petermann, who caught a dozen passes for 117 yards and a pair of fourth-quarter majors. Guelph led 32-9 before the pair of Petermann TDs. Guelph's A'dre Fraser only had four catches, but two of them were for touchdowns.
Ottawa built up a 46-3 lead at Windsor before coasting to an easy win. Ian Stewart was a machine for the Gee-Gees, hauling in eight passes for 188 yards and two TDs. Mitchell Baines also broke the 100-yard receiving mark. Derek Wendel passed for 381 yards and five touchdowns. Freshman Liam Putt is now the Lancers starting QB. He was 24-41 for 374 yards and a touchdown. Gilbert Stewart had a 75-yard TD catch on the final play of the game, he finished with 137 receiving yards. Ottawa recorded four sacks and an unusually high 10 tackles for a loss.
Carleton held on for a nail-biting win over U-of-T. The Ravens led 16-8 after three quarters. The Blues scored an early fourth-quarter major, but missed the two point conversion that would have tied the game. On the next drive Anthony Iafrate hooked a 28-yard FG attempt that would have given the Blues the lead. They settled for the single point and never had the ball on Carleton's side of midfield for the rest of the game. Toronto's running game was almost completely shut down, totaling just 52 yards. The Blues held Nate Behar to just four catches. Jahvari Bennett led the Ravens with 107 yards rushing. The good news for Carleton is that the third-year program is on the verge of cracking the CIS Top Ten, finishing 12th in voting this week. The bad news is that they're at Western on Saturday.
On the final day of the 2014 regular season Waterloo defeated York 32-31. On Saturday, the Lions got some revenge with a 23-14 win. It's been quite some time since York has held a 20-0 lead, but that was the case last week. Jesse Amankwaa led the Leos with 131-rushing yards and a pair of TDs. Freshman Brett Hunchak threw for almost 200 yards, but was intercepted three times, twice by Christian Mahler. Warriors QB Lucas McConnell threw for 313 yards and a pair of majors, but was also picked off three times. His leading target was Mitch Kernick, who caught six passes for 170 yards. York had the ball for over 37 minutes.
Mike Hogan's opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Ontario University Athletics.