It was supposed to be a year that was okay at best. A team with a great defence, but plenty of question marks on offence. The Laurier Golden Hawks are silencing their critics.
Wins over Queen's, York and Carleton have propelled the Hawks to a 3-0 start and a fifth-place position in this week's CIS national football rankings.
In this season's OUA Uncovered, a coaches poll had Laurier rated sixth in the conference, a sentiment echoed in a survey of fans. The OUA staff had them rated one place higher.
So is the team surprised at how well it's doing?
"I would say internally, no," head coach Michael Faulds told "In The Huddle." "We knew we had a tough schedule out of the gate."
They beat Queen's 37-18 thanks to 21 fourth-quarter points, a week later they pounded York 74-3 then, after a bye week, the Hawks upset the Ravens 17-16 at Carleton.
The season opener taught the coach a lot about his group.
"We learned how much heart we have and how tough we are," explained Faulds. "In years past if we were close in the third, we would have crumbled and thrown it away."
Not on that day. The defence was relentless and the offence survived four interceptions to come away with the victory.
There wasn't really a lot the team could take from as one-sided a victory as the one against York, but there were certainly lessons to be learned from the dramatic win in the capital, a game they found themselves trailing by nine points in the third quarter.
"We learned how we're never out of it," said a straightforward Faulds.
They may also have learned that they needed to make a change at quarterback. Julien John provided a great story by returning to the program after switching sports to play varsity soccer, but hadn't played to the level that Faulds was hoping for.
John would be relieved of his duties in the Carleton game after going 2-9 passing for just six yards. He'd be replaced by Michael Knevel, who was slightly better, going 4-8 for 40 yards.
The elements were tough, but we weren't doing much," Faulds said of the QB change. "We have to be able to make enough throws."
That said, the team can still run the ball exceptionally well. Despite losing Dillon Campbell to graduation, the Hawks have averaged 325 rushing yards per game, slightly more than Western, but a full 100 yards per-game more than Montreal, who have the third-best average in CIS football.
"I think we can run the football," explained the coach. "Carleton knew we were running the ball, with the roster size they dressed nine d-linemen. We have a resilient group on the o-line and I have to give credit to our tight ends and fullbacks."
Despite any accolades this team receives offensively, it's the defence that will make or break this team. It's a star-studded unit that has already totalled 15 sacks and scored three TDs, both CIS highs. Faulds knows how good this group is.
"I was sitting in a hotel on the Friday night, in a defensive meeting (before the Carleton game) and I looked at the starters." Recalled the coach. "Some of the most highly recruited players in the country were in that room, not players that came out of nowhere."
Credit Faulds and Dwayne Cameron for recruiting this group. Cameron also coaches the defensive backs for coordinator Ron VanMoerkerke, who also works with the d-line. VanMoerkerke has never received the accolades he deserves, dating back to being the D.C. on the 2005 Vanier Cup champions, but Faulds isn't surprised by his success.
"He's such a good teacher and a good motivator," said one coach of another. "Guys just want to work as hard for him as they can, they'd go through a wall for him."
Faulds would know. He was a quarterback at Western and saw firsthand what VanMoerkerke was capable of.
"He's got a system, but it's not set in stone" explained Faulds. "He's good at moving people around. Look at the 2005 team, Justin Phillips, Yannick Carter, Ian Logan, you never knew where they would line up."
Few remain in the program from the '05 champs, but those that remember that era know that a Golden Hawk appearance on the CIS Top Ten list happened regularly.
"It's really important," said the coach. "We talk about very big goals, the Yates, the Vanier, but consistency is what I like too. I like where we're going."
At the beginning of the season there were three teams that received most of the attention in the OUA. If someone predicted a team other than Guelph, Western or McMaster to win the conference, the selection was likely made more with the heart than the head.
It's now apparent that any of the six teams that qualify for the post season could win the Yates Cup.
Rain was a factor in most of the OUA games last weekend, with Laurier and Carleton being no exception. Eric Guiltinan rushed for an even 200 yards in the Hawks 17-16 win, sending the Homecoming crowd home disappointed. Jayde Rowe countered with 161 yards on the ground for the home side. Kudos go out to the Ravens o-line as Carleton threw the ball 36 times and remarkably didn't surrender a sack to the much-vaunted Laurier defence, though the Hawks did force five turnovers. Laurier also didn't give up a sack on 17 passing attempts.
Like the Golden Hawks, Ottawa upped its record to 3-0 with a 31-28 win over Guelph in double overtime. Derek Wendel's third touchdown pass of the game was to Trevor Kennedy in the second extra frame, making it the football equivalent of a baseball walk off. Mitchell Baines had his third consecutive 100+ yard receiving game for Ottawa, who also saw Bryce Viera rush for 113 yards. A'Dre Fraser returned to the lineup for the Gryphons and was James Roberts favourite target. He caught a dozen passes for 98 yards, while Johnny Augustine added 153 more on the ground. Ottawa's Sam Randazzo had the game's only sack. This game was remarkably close in virtually every statistical category. Nobody would complain about a post-season rematch.
It was only appropriate that long-time rivals Queen's and Western would open the new Richardson Stadium in Kingston. The Mustangs spoiled the party with a 27-13 win. The Mustangs dominant rushing attack was on display, as they rolled up 328 yards on the ground, led by Alex Taylor, who was two yards shy of a 200-yard day. Queen's usually reliable ground game was held in check. Jonah Pataki was held to 37 yards on 11 carries. Gaels quarterback Nate Hobbs actually led the Tricolour with 64 rushing yards, but threw three interceptions. Chris Merchant played the entire game at QB for Western, but went only 6-13 passing for 65 yards. John Biewald was a disruptive force for Western with a pair of sacks and three tackles for a loss.
Nate Hobbs brother Marcus had a much happier day quarterbacking his team to a win in the 47th annual Red and Blue Bowl. The U-of-T won its fourth straight Argo Cup with a 45-18 win over York. The Blues scored the game's final 21 points to blow open what had been a close game. Hobbs threw for 210 yards and a pair of TDs, a 76-yarder to Rahul Madan and a 65-yard strike to Anthony Naccarato. Both Alex Malone and Kaleb Leach rushed for over 100 yards. Kayden Johnson rushed for a whopping 207 yards for the Lions. Michael Runowski had a 10-tackle afternoon for York.
Chris Pezzetta had a pair of rushing majors for McMaster in its 35-0 win over Waterloo. Jordan Lyons picked up 105 yards on the ground for the Marauders. Mac recorded five interceptions on the day. Adam Preocanin booted a 49-yard field goal in the win, the second longest in CIS play this year. He also leads the country with 12 field goals. Kurtis Gray may have been the bright spot for Waterloo. He totalled eight tackles, a pair of sacks and as many tackles for a loss.