In the Huddle: The million dollar question

In the Huddle: The million dollar question

Written By: Mike Hogan

So, how do you beat Western?

It’s a question that coaches across the country have been asking since the 2016 Yates Cup final, the last time the Mustangs lost a game.

This week the ‘Stangs host Carleton in an OUA semi-final. After some opening pleasantries, ‘In The Huddle’ asked Ravens Head Coach Steve Sumarah that very question, how do you beat Western?

The jovial mood got really serious really quickly.

“In all honesty it’s been a task no one in the country has been able to do in 20 games,” said the coach. “They’re solid. They make no mistakes, they don’t give up big plays and they’re playing with confidence.”

Other than that, they’re pretty vulnerable.

If there’s any coach in Canada that has legitimacy when telling his team that it can beat Western, it’s Sumarah. In the season opener the Mustangs travelled to the capital and the home side looked like it was going to hand the visitors a loss. It was 20-3 for the Ravens at halftime before the purple ponies roared back, winning 26-23 in overtime.

It’s something that Sumarah can draw from when addressing his team this week.

“We showed we can compete,” he told OUA.ca before admitting “that was almost a season ago.”

In the interim the Ravens lost two other games, the Panda Game against Ottawa and a ridiculously entertaining game against Laurier. Another exciting game saw them defeat the Queen’s Gaels in double overtime.

Competing in August and facing the undefeated Mustangs at home in late October are two completely different tasks. The coach understands his group is – to say the least – a huge underdog.

“There’s not one person in the country that thinks we’re within 40 (points),” said Sumarah, “But we beat Mac, a team we’ve never beaten before, and we know that if you’re going to win (the Yates Cup) you have to beat Western.”

Easier said than done, but the coach was right when he said the game was almost a season ago, which means there’s been plenty of time for the Ravens –along with every other team - to improve. Sumarah says his team’s consistency is its biggest area of improvement since the beginning of the season, but now they have to get themselves in the right frame of mind to knock off the defending Vanier Cup champs in their building.

“To be honest with you,” said the coach, “the challenge is to block out the negativity and keeping this positive. If you have an ounce of doubt, don’t get on the bus.”

With Sumarah’s motivational skills, there is zero doubt the bus will be full when it heads to London for Saturday’s game.

The O Zone:

CARLETON RAVENS (5-3) AT WESTERN MUSTANGS (8-0)

This week it’s the Ravens turn to try and knock off the Mustangs in a rematch from Week One.

The Mustangs ran the table this year, winning by an average score of 48-11, averaging 562 offensive yards per game. It’s a veteran group that looks a lot like the team that breezed to a Vanier Cup victory last year. It’s filled with players, who last year, learned what it took to win a national championship.

They’re led by an incredible ground game, which pounded its way to a remarkable 275 rushing yards per game. It features not one, not two, but three running backs and a mobile quarterback. Cedric Joseph led the conference with 970 yards, highlighted by a game against Windsor when he set the OUA record with 355 yards before being taken out at halftime. He led the country with 12 rushing TDs. Edmonton draft pick Alex Taylor rushed for 540 yards, each back averaging 8.2 yards per carry. The third back is Trey Humes, who totalled 298 yards, 121 of them coming against York. Quarterback Chris Merchant scrambled for 255 yards, giving the Mustangs four players in the OUA’s top 18 rushers.

Comparing any team’s rushing game to Western’s is just unfair. Among the mortal teams, Carleton is in the middle of the pack, averaging 126 yard per game. Nathan Carter leads the way, finishing fourth among OUA backs with 95 yards per outing. He hit the century mark in three regular-season games, including 159 yards in the win over Queen’s. Carter saved his bester performance of the season for the playoffs, tearing through McMaster for 172 yards and three TDs last week.

Quarterback Michael Arruda was okay against Mac, but when the ground game is working, okay is actually all you need. He completed 52 percent of his passes for 239 yards and no touchdowns, but most importantly, he was not intercepted. He’s more than capable of having a big day as he finished seventh in the country with 2,263 passing yards. Only Tre Ford threw more OUA touchdown passes than his 17, but his eight interceptions slotted him in a four-way tie for the most in the conference.

Chris Merchant’s stats are hampered by the Western running game and the lopsided nature of their wins. Still, he managed to throw 17 TD passes this season, and led the OUA with a QB efficiency rating of 200.7. He has size, a strong arm, scrambling ability, and maybe most importantly, plenty of playoff experience. It’s hard to say that a Vanier Cup winning quarterback is underrated, but that’s the case with Merchant.

Edmonton draft pick Harry McMaster is Merchant’s No. 1 target. He caught 30 passes for 631 yards, finishing second in the conference with an average reception of 21 yards. His best game of the season was the regular season finale against Laurier, where he caught seven passes for 160 yards and a pair of TDs. The receiving corps is rounded out by Brett Ellerman, Cole Majoros, and deep threat Malik Besseghieur.

Against McMaster, the Ravens were run heavy, but Phil Iloki was able to post a 116-yard game on just three catches. He and Quinton Soares – who had one catch last week for 41 yards - provide a great one-two punch for Arruda, while Chad Manchulenko had five catches last week against Mac.

The battle between Western’s offensive line and Carleton’s front seven should be the most interesting game within the game. As noted, Western has been able to run the ball with ease at times, but Carleton’s strength may be its defensive front. Kene Onyeka finished tied for second in the country with seven sacks, while Josh Walsh added 4.5 more.

If you watch Western with the ball, you will undoubtedly see Ravens linebacker Jack Cassar, who finished fourth in U SPORTS with 72 tackles. Defensive back Jon Edouard may be counted on to make a big play, he led the Ravens with 3 interceptions.

Western’s defence was incredible this year. They were number one in the OUA against the run, number one against the pass, gave up the fewest points, had the second-most interceptions, recovered the second-most fumbles and were tied for second in sacks, finishing one behind Carleton. Andrew Thurston finished a half sack behind Onyeka for the conference lead.

Linebacker Fraser Sopik anchors the defence, leading the team with 46 tackles, while defensive back Mackenzie Ferguson led the Mustangs with three interceptions.

Western’s Marc Liegghio was the conference’s top kicker, hitting 19 of 22 field goal attempts, a success rate of 86%, tops in the OUA. He connected on all 42 of his conversion attempts - that’s right, 42 attempts in just eight games – while leading the OUA in punting with a 42.5-yard average. 

But there’s not a huge difference between Liegghio and the Ravens Michael Domagala. He connected on 76% of his field goal tries, notched a conference-best 50-yarder – against Western – while his average punt travelled 40.1 yards.

Carleton struggled again with penalties last week against McMaster, taking 11 for 109 yards, exactly their average yardage during the regular season, which was the highest in the OUA. Western averaged just 78 yards per game.

The last time they met: August 26, 2018, Western 26, Carleton 23 (OT). The two teams opened the season at Carleton and it almost ended in a huge upset. The Ravens jumped out to a 20-3 halftime lead, as Phil Iloki and Mitch Raper caught long TD passes from Michael Arruda. Harry McMaster caught a TD pass from Chris Merchant late in the third quarter, then on the next possession Phillipe Dion recovered a fumble and returned it 37 yards for a TD. Western would take a 23-20 lead in the fourth quarter, but Michael Domagala tied the game with a 50-yard field goal with just one second left. Marc Liegghio gave the ‘Stangs a lead with an OT field goal, then Bleska Kambamba won it for Western with an interception.

GUELPH GRYPHONS (5-3) AT OTTAWA GEE-GEES (6-2)

Just like the other OUA semi-final, this is a rematch from an early season game.

Entering the season these two teams provided the biggest questions in the conference. Each team had the potential of being very good, or disappointing. Finishing as the second and third seeds underscores that both answered more of its questions in the affirmative.

Both teams are still a bit tough to figure out though.

Any team that Jamie Barresi coaches will be a passing team – it’s his M.O. That said, Ottawa passed for just 230 yards per game, second lowest in the OUA, with just one team below it (Guelph at 180 per game).

Ottawa quarterback Sawyer Buettner wrapped up his first OUA season after playing junior football for the Regina Thunder by completing 58% of his passes, averaging just 184 yards per game. He threw 14 TD passes against five interceptions. In his last start against Queen’s, he was 13/25, 105 yards, 1 TD and 2 interceptions.

Theo Landers of the Gryphons hasn’t lit it up this season either, throwing for 200 yards in just one regular-season game. Against Waterloo last week, he was just 11/22, but looked good for most of the first half. He finished with a pair of TDs against one pick and 240 yards. He is capable of making big plays on the ground; something the Gee-Gees will have to be ready for.

The Gryphons offence added a major component in time for the playoffs. Jean-Paul Cimankinda destroyed Waterloo last week, rushing for 256 yards and three touchdowns. He’s started the last three games for the Gryphs and gone over 100 yards in each of them, though two of the games were against Waterloo and the other against Toronto. We’ll see how he fares against a better defence.

Ottawa will feature Dawson Odei in the backfield. Filling in for the injured Bryce Vieira, Odei hit the century mark four times this season, including a career-high 153 yards against Guelph.

Kade Belyk and Kian Schaffer-Baker provide Guelph with a solid one-two punch at receiver. The latter provides a big target at 6’4”, while the former led the way last week with five catches for 94 yards and a TD.

Carter Matheson is the Gee-Gees top threat. He finished fifth in the OUA with 664 receiving yards, featuring a 258-yard, three-touchdown performance against Toronto. Kalem Beaver has the chance to finish strong after a disappointing regular season where he caught just 16 passes, three of which went for touchdowns.

Both teams feature aggressive defences, finishing third and fourth in the OUA in points against per game. Ottawa is statistically better against the pass, Guelph against the run. Both teams finished with 23 sacks, just one behind conference-leading Carleton. The two teams were tied for the OUA lead with four defensive touchdowns.

Guelph is led by linebackers Luke Korol and Job Reinhart. Korol led the country with 92 tackles and has a knack for making game-changing plays.

The Gee-Gees best playmakers are in the secondary. Jamie Harry led the country with seven interceptions, while Luke Griese tied for fourth with four. Kyle Rodger led the team with 57 tackles, while Reshaan Davis and Cody Baranyk each had four sacks.

The last time they met: September 9, 2018, Ottawa 12, Guelph 10. Dawson Odei opened the scoring with one of only two majors scored throughout the entire meeting. Campbell Fair split the uprights to push Ottawa’s lead to 10-0 after the first. An 85-yard passing play to Guelph’s Zeph Fraser cut the lead to 10-7 and wrapped up the scoring in the half. A safety pushed Ottawa’s total to 12 in the third, which is where they would top out, while a field goal from Ferraro brought the low-scoring final to 12-10.

IN MEMORIAM

The OUA lost two extremely good friends this week.

Don Edwards and his 18-year old son Spencer were killed in a car accident on Wednesday. Don was 59.

The elder Edwards was a fixture in Hamilton’s football community. From the Hamilton Ticats to the Hurricanes to his role as president of the Ontario Football Alliance. To OUA fans he was likely best known as a long-time voice on McMaster broadcasts on Cable 14.

Football has lost a true friend.

And former Waterloo Head Coach Chris Triantafilou passed away after a fight with cancer. He was only 61. Affectionately known as ‘Greek’, Chris was a defensive back at Laurier before entering the coaching ranks at Waterloo. He was their Defensive Coordinator when the Warriors won the Yates Cup in 1997, then won it again in his second season as their Head Coach in 1999.

Chris was the kind of guy you just wanted to hang out with. His passion for his family and for his sport was obvious. For those that knew him as a coach, he’ll be remembered for his omnipresent ball cap, his ability to make you laugh, and his use of the word “dang”.

‘In The Huddle’ will never forget Coach T in the locker room after the Warriors beat Western 35-21 in a 1999 OUA semi-final in what turned out to be the final game ever played at J.W. Little Memorial Stadium.

Waterloo trailed 14-0 before his beloved triple-option offence took over the game, at one point executing a 17-play drive. After the game, the coach was in his glory. The locker room was filled with steam, it was loud, it smelled like a football locker room should. For the coach it was a joyous place to be.

Greek raved about his players and coaches. He talked about how one day he wanted to coach his team in a “perfect game”. When asked what that was he smiled and said, “A game where we don’t have to pass once.” If he could have stayed in that moment in time forever he would have.

Sadly, his moments have come to an end, and that’s going to take a long time to sink in. His contributions to OUA football, and specifically to the Warriors and Golden Hawks, will not be forgotten.

It was truly a sad week.

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