By Jessica Barrett
(HAMILTON, ON) – After playing to a school-best 7-1 record in 2012, observers were waiting for the No. 4 Guelph Gryphons to regress and falter in 2013. Heading into final week of the season, Stu Lang’s Gryphs are undefeated, having won 14 straight regular season games dating back to last season and the worst his team can do this season is 7-1.
The only thing standing between Guelph, an 8-0 season and a first round bye is Pat Sheahan and the No. 5 Queen’s Gaels (6-1). The nationally ranked Gryphs and Gaels face off at Richardson Stadium in Kingston this Saturday at 1 p.m. on Sportsnet U: OUA Saturday football live on Sportsnet 360.
The coveted first round bye is in the crosshairs of both Queen’s and Guelph. A win for 6-1 Gaels gives the teams identical 7-1 records, with Sheahan holding the tiebreaker. A Guelph win completes the first 8-0 season in school history, clinches the bye and home field in the semifinals. (It also creates the prospect of two undefeated OUA football teams as 7-0 Western plays York.)
“To have that bye to help some of the players heal and to have one shot on your home court to get to the Yates Cup is something everyone wants,” Lang said. “There is a lot riding on this game besides records.”
Given that these teams could play each other again in the semis, home field is truly an advantage. Guelph beat Queen’s twice last season at Alumni Stadium, a turf field, but Richardson Stadium is grass, the last remaining grass field in the league and a definite advantage for the hometown Gaels. This isn’t lost on Lang, who had his players practicing on grass fields in the week leading up to this game.
“When you move to a grass field, it’s at our disadvantage,” he said. “We’ve been practicing on grass to get the players acclimatized, not just mentally, but with their cleats. Plus Queen’s is at home, it’s Homecoming and there’s a revenge factor from last year. We are going to have a big, uphill battle.”
The revenge factor Lang referred to was a 42-39 come-from-behind win for the Gryphs in the semifinals last season. Trailing 36-14 heading into the fourth quarter, Guelph scored 22 unanswered points to force overtime and won it with a Michael Fortino touchdown reception.
“It’s not something we spend a lot of time talking about, but the way the second game ended left a bitter taste in everybody’s mouth here,” Sheahan said. “It’s a great opportunity for our guys to step up and make a statement.”
Queen’s has lived with that loss for nearly a full year and have played the rest of the OUA hard since then. The Gaels throttled the Waterloo Warriors 78-21 last week and have wins over Windsor, No. 9 McMaster and Ottawa this season, all teams in the top six. Their only blemish comes against the No. 1 Western Mustangs.
The Gaels offence is led by their rushing attack, which is ranked second in the OUA and is racking up 221 yards per game. Ryan Granberg (Sherwood Park, Alta.) is Sheahan’s biggest threat and he has rushed for the fourth most yards in the league (526). On the surface, his 526 yards looks like a considerable drop from 966 a year ago, but Granberg has only touched the ball 75 times compared to 179 (over eight games) in 2012. Sheahan was worried that Granberg was too run down in the playoffs last season, so he’s been saving him for the big games and Saturday’s contest certainly counts as one of those.
As a result, Jesse Andrews (Arnprior, Ont.) has emerged as another threat with the rock. The second-year back has carried the ball 55 times and has picked up 473 yards and five scores. He also ranks with the OUA’s rushing leaders, slotting in at number seven.
“We have a number of pretty prolific backfield and a number of good carriers and they are all in pretty good shape going into the most important part of the season,” Sheahan said. “That was the goal and we’ve achieved that thus far.”
Guelph counters with the duo of Rob Farquharson (Niagara Falls, Ont.) and Johnny Augustine (Welland, Ont.). Farquharson, last year’s third leading rusher, has been dynamite since returning from an injury, rushing for 370 yards in three games. Like Granberg, he should have plenty left in the tank for Saturday’s game and the ensuing playoffs. Augustine, a rookie, ran for 393 yards and one score in Faruqharson’s absence.
Quarterbacks Jazz Lindsey (Markham, Ont.) and Billy McPhee (Burlington, Ont.) line up under centre for the Gryphs and Gaels and both will be looking to improve on their numbers from last season’s playoff game. Lindsey went 14-36 for 198 yards and two touchdowns for Guelph, while McPhee completed 22-of-33 for 226 yards and one touchdown. Lindsey’s completion rate was 39%, but the story of the game was McPhee’s three interceptions, on top of nine he had in the regular season.
Both QB’s have improved those facets of their game, as Lindsey’s completion rate is 57% and McPhee has improved his touchdown-to-interception ratio from 10-9 to 14-3. McPhee is also coming off of a stellar performance against Waterloo, completing 14 of 17 passes for 277 yards and four TDs.
Lang weighed in on McPhee’s turnaround this season. “When you have a strong arm, you tend to force the ball a bit, so he’s watching what he’s doing in terms of his reads and where’s he throwing. He’s certainly improved over last year.”
Lindsey and McPhee will both be in tough, as Queen’s and Guelph have two of the top defences in the OUA.
Guelph is the only team to allow fewer than 100 rush yards per game, averaging 94. They also boast the best pass defence, allowing a league-low 227 passing yards per game. Overall, the Grpyons are stingy and have conceded a league-low 102 points this season, 36 less the Western Mustangs.
Guelph’s front four – Cam Walker (London, Ont.), Jeff Finley (St. Catharines, Ont.), Jordan Thompson (Burlington, Ont.) and Ian Marouf (Fort Erie, Ont.) – are as good as they come and as a team, the Gryphs have 30 sacks and seven interceptions this season. They are missing linebacker John Rush (Niagara, Ont.) who is out for the season after suffering an ACL injury in practice earlier this month.
“Guelph has a very good defensive line and it’ll be a great challenge for our offensive line to make consistent yardage gains,” Sheahan said. “Nobody has gone out and dominated their defence this year, so to go out and have a good game against them would certainly be a key (to victory).”
The Queen’s defence is also having an impressive season under defensive coordinator Pat Tracey. As a team, the Gaels lead the OUA in sacks (32), forced fumbles (10) and are third in points allowed (185). All-star linebacker Sam Sabourin (Stittsville, Ont.) and defensive end Derek Wiggan (Toronto) anchor the defence, but Justin Baronaitis (Rexdale, Ont.) is the team’s top tackler and Sean Plumley (Sault St. Marie, Ont.) has made a major contribution with 28.5 tackles and four sacks.
As for the special teams battle, the teams are evenly matched. Guelph has the most return yards in the OUA (799) while Queen’s has the most touchdowns (3). Both teams have a 63% field goal completion rate.
Given the recent history and how well both teams have played his season, it seems fitting that they meet up in the final week. No one will be eliminated as a result of Saturday’s action, but with so much on the line, it could be the most intense game of the season. Tune in to Sportsnet U: OUA Saturday football, live on Sportsnet 360 at 1 p.m. for all of the live action.