From the day OUA training camps open in August, one thing has been on the minds of players, coaches and fans alike - making the playoffs.
For different programs, the playoffs mean different things. For a school like Western, playing in November was almost a given. The goal was more about positioning than actually getting to the postseason.
For a team like Waterloo, the playoffs may have seemed like an unreachable objective. As the season progressed, the target became tantalizingly close, yet remained so painfully far away. As the regular season concluded, the Warriors were unable to attain their goal of just getting in.
The season will continue for six teams, while five others can relax for a while, let their bodies heal, and then begin with the off-season routine that may help them find their playoff form for 2018.
The Mustangs and Golden Hawks will enjoy the week off and await the survivors of this week’s first-round games, which offer fans a pair of intriguing matchups right out of the gates.
#6 Queen’s Gaels (4-4) at #3 McMaster Marauders (5-2)
It’s been two distinctive halves for the Tricolour. Pat Sheahan’s crew started out 0-4, facing a collection of stiff competition in the first half, before taking advantage of the schedule to run the table down the stretch. Saturday’s match-up will be an indication of how much the team has improved since Week 1.
Perhaps the biggest turnaround for Queen’s has been in the area of pass protection. It’s an oft-repeated stat, but one that is certainly applicable for this week’s game. In their first three outings, Queen’s surrendered 26 sacks, an astronomically high number. They cleaned things up in the second half, but pass protection is still not a strong point.
What compounds that area of concern is that they’re playing McMaster. The Marauders finished third in the country with 25 sacks, but Greg Knox’s teams have historically brought even more pressure in the playoffs; so much so that Mac may begin blitzing from the parking lot two hours before kickoff. That’s the kind of day it should be and how the Gaels handle that pressure will perhaps be the biggest game-within-the-game.
A particular key to within this storyline is how QB Nate Hobbs reacts to that pressure. Hobbs leads the country with 2,570 passing yards and 21 touchdowns against just four interceptions. He is a rhythm quarterback who can carry a team if he gets in a good groove; potentially problematic for the Marauders if they can’t get to the QB.
It’s no secret that an effective running game always helps a passing attack, and Jake Puskas has been dynamite since taking over from an injured Jonah Pataki. Puskas has strung together five consecutive games of over 100 yards. Combined with receivers Chris Osei-Kusi and Matteo Del Brocco, the Queen’s offence is as dangerous as they come and playing its best football of the season.
It would be hugely advantageous for the Gaels to continue one trend that has helped them a great deal to date. When they get to the red zone, they typically find a way to finish the drive with a touchdown. Nationally, only Western has scored more touchdowns from inside the 20-yard line, while Queen’s and Montreal are tied with a 73-percent red-zone TD rate.
To defend home field, the Marauders will rely on a formula for success that has worked well, save for last week’s loss to Laurier. Count on the defence to make plays and help win a battle of field possession, while making sure the offence plays turnover-free football and eventually wear out the opponents.
That wasn’t the case against the Hawks as Jackson White, who has been effective in his freshman season, threw just his fifth and sixth interceptions of the season against 10 TD passes. Joining White in the quest to bounce back from last week’s loss are Jordan Lyons, who headlines a solid running game, and Dan Petermann, who serves as the main receiving target. McMaster also boasts a slight edge on special teams with their current personnel.
These two teams did not meet in the regular season, but did come together on October 6th last season in Hamilton, with the home side winning 36-6.
The Marauders will be the favourite here, but if the Gaels can keep Hobbs clean, this becomes an incredibly intriguing matchup.
#5 Guelph Gryphons (5-3) at #4 Ottawa Gee-Gees (5-3)
Who are the Ottawa Gee-Gees?
Once again, the garnet and grey enter the playoffs as an underdog, even though they’re the higher seed.
Underrating the U-of-O is understandable. The uber-talented Derek Wendel graduated at the end of the ’16 season leaving a major question mark at the most important position. That void was filled at the beginning of the season by Victor Twynstra, who was injured early on. His replacement has been Alex Lavric, who had been showing steady improvement before being somewhat humbled against Western last week.
Bryce Vieira has been returning to form after a disappointing beginning to the season, including a 13-carry, 30-yard performance against Guelph in Week One. Carter Matheson is the primary target among receivers, though it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Gee-Gees try to get Vieira more touches through the air. They’ll have to find a way to move the football, as they’re in the bottom third of essentially every offensive statistical category.
Jamie Barresi’s team also has to be better against the run, where they gave up a whopping 231-yards per game, only York was worse.
Fans of the Gryphons were probably uncomfortable at around the mid-season mark. The team was 2-3 and had Waterloo, Laurier and Carleton left on the schedule. Kevin MacNeill’s team responded by sweeping the final three games, looking most impressive in a 24-14 win over the Golden Hawks.
Like this week’s opponent, Guelph had to change quarterbacks in mid-season due to injury. Theo Landers has stepped in for James Roberts and played well, adding a noteworthy running threat to the mix.
The Gryphs have also benefitted from a late return to form by Johnny Augustine, who in his last two games has totalled 313 rushing yards. Jacob Scarfone is the go-to receiver, but the running attack is the more important element of Guelph’s offence, so how Ottawa tries to negate that threat is the most interesting subplot of this game.
Both teams are among the most disciplined in the country in terms of penalties, so that shouldn’t be a factor, while Guelph’s Gabriel Ferraro and Ottawa’s Lewis Ward are among the top kickers in the country, making it tough to claim an advantage on either side.
It would be nice if these two teams provide the excitement they did in the season opener, where the Gee-Gees won 24-21 in Guelph in a game that needed two overtimes, but only time will tell.